We matter: Exploring the Psychosocial wellbeing of newcomers amid COVID‑19 in Southern Ontario

Mfoafo-M'Carthy, Magnus | $37,479

Ontario Wilfrid Laurier University 2021 SSHRC

This study explores the psychosocial impact of the COVID‑19 pandemic on newcomers in Canada, including their access to social supports and resources. The pandemic and its resulting lockdowns have had a tremendous impact on the lives of individuals, families, and communities globally, but little is known about how newcomers to Canada, including immigrants and refugees, are coping. Several factors increase newcomers’ risks of contracting the virus and of suffering from severe social isolation and distress. These factors include overrepresentation in precarious frontline work; high rates of unemployment and financial burdens; a lack of family/friend support networks; language and technological barriers; and challenges in accessing support systems which have either been decimated by the pandemic or (at best) shifted to online platforms not easily accessible to newcomers.

To better understand the challenges facing newcomers and to support the development of more responsive social services, this study will:

1. Explore the psychosocial impact of COVID‑19 on newcomers to Canada.

2. Identify challenges faced by newcomers in accessing social services during COVID-19.

3. Develop policy and practice recommendations for improving supports for newcomers.

Engaging with a socio-ecological systems framework, we will conduct Participatory Action Research with 60 newcomers and 15 service providers in the three regions in Ontario with the highest newcomer populations: The Greater Toronto Area, Ottawa, and the Waterloo Region. Theoretically, a socio-ecological systems framework is apt for exploring newcomers’ diverse encounters with social systems, how they cope with the challenges emanating from these encounters, and most importantly their inputs into redefining the psychosocial support systems available to them. In line with this approach, we will gather data using the Structured Interview Matrix (SIM), a variant of Participant Action Research which engages groups in equitable dialogue, providing individuals from marginalized communities an opportunity to share diverse perspectives and to learn with and from one another. Research with newcomers will be complemented by semi-structured interviews with social service providers, thus providing an enriched understanding of the psychosocial wellbeing of newcomers throughout the pandemic and their needs for support.

Our research team has the conceptual and methodological expertise needed to undertake the proposed study, in areas including qualitative methods, research with vulnerable populations including immigrants and refugees, and translating research into policy and practice recommendations. We will employ one PhD student and two Master’s of Social Work (MSW) students, who will be included as full members of the research team and receive high-quality, hands-on training in Participation Action Research with vulnerable populations. Findings will be disseminated through conference papers, peer-reviewed scholarly publications, factsheets, and a policy report, as well as through social media and a publicly accessible website.

Exploring, interpreting, and explaining the struggles faced by newcomers during (and after) the pandemic will provide a window into the lived experience of COVID‑19 for a neglected and vulnerable group. This knowledge will inform the development of responsive supports and resources for newcomers in times of crisis. This knowledge, moreover, will expand the social sciences literature on newcomer wellbeing in Canada to account for shifting societal conditions caused by the pandemic.

With funding from the Government of Canada

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