Academic journal article Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal

Welcoming the Stranger in Alberta: Newcomers, Secularism and Religiously Affiliated Settlement Agencies

Academic journal article Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal

Welcoming the Stranger in Alberta: Newcomers, Secularism and Religiously Affiliated Settlement Agencies

Article excerpt

Abstract

Religious groups and churches have always played, and continue to play, vital roles in the settlement and integration of newcomers to Canada. In the 1980s, several not-for-profit agencies emerged with Catholic and Mennonite roots to respond to the arrival of thousands of refugees to the province from Southeast Asia and Central America. Today, these agencies are particularly interesting as they both challenge prevailing views on secularization and the provision of public services, and play an exceptionally active role in providing services to newcomers. This paper explores the interplay between the prevalence of a liberal secular ideology in Canada and the shifting identities of faith-based organizations in Alberta. Based on archival research and interviews, this paper demonstrates that it is the shifting and, often conflicting, views of staff and volunteers that have contributed to the secularization of identities in most of these agencies.

Resume

Les groupes religieux et les eglises ont joue et continuent de jouer un role vital dans l'etablissement et l'integration des nouveaux arrivants au Canada. Dans les annees 1980, plusieurs organismes sans but lucratif ont emerge avec des racines catholiques et mennonites pour repondre a l'arrivee dans la province des milliers de refugies en provenance de l'Asie du Sud et de l'Amerique centrale. Aujourd'hui, ces agences sont particulierement interessantes dans la mesure ou elles defient les structures dominantes sur la laicite et la livraison des services publiques, et jouent un role exceptionnellement actif en pourvoyant des services aux nouveaux arrivants. Cet article explore l'interaction entre la prevalence d'une ideologie laique liberale au Canada et la mutation identitaire des organismes religieux en Alberta. A partir des archives de recherches et des entrevues, cette etude demontre que ce sont les opinons changeantes et souvent conflictuelles du personnel et des volontaires qui ont contribue a la laicite des identites de la plupart d'agences.

INTRODUCTION

Religiously affiliated agencies or faith-based organizations that provide services to immigrants and refugees have always played, and continue to play, vital roles in the settlement and integration of newcomers to Canada. While western Canada witnessed large waves of immigration during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was churches and religious organizations that provided early support for community building and creating social capital (Knowles 1997; Palmer and Palmer 1985). As refugees began to arrive in Canada from Southeast Asia and Central and South America in significant numbers in the early 1980s, it became clear that there was very little support or services in place to assist in the settlement of these vulnerable populations. It was largely church activists that mobilized to create organizations that provided much needed services in housing, education (especially language training), employment and accessing other social services. Moreover, it was faith-based communities (churches, temples, mosques) that organized to sponsor and support thousands of refugees across Canada and, in fact, continue to act as important centres for settlement and integration of refugees and immigrants (Beiser 1999; Bramadat and Seljak 2008, 2009; Ives and Witmer Sinha 2010). (1)

In Alberta, immigrant-serving organizations, many with religious affiliation, emerged as incorporated not-for-profit agencies in the late 1970s and early 1980s in order to access provincial and federal funding (Bai 1992). In the last fifteen years, there has been a noticeable trend in which some of the organizations eliminate or understate religious affiliation or references from their mandate, logo and name. Even within those organizations that have not changed their name or mandate, the discussion regarding religious affiliation is ongoing. Before beginning the early stages of research, I was interested in how an increasing concern regarding the place of religiosity in the public sphere, particularly when related to the media portrayals of newcomers and minorities in Canada, played a part in the apparent secularization (by this I refer to the decline of religiosity in individual populations and the decreasing influence of religion in the public sphere) of religiously affiliated settlement organizations. …

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