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Does life in Canada meet immigrants’ expectations?


The experiences of recent immigrants in Canada have received considerable attention from the media and researchers since the mid-1990s.

Much of this attention has focused on the labour market and financial outcomes of immigrants, such as the extent to which they find employment in their intended field, experience upward earnings mobility and obtain incomes above low-income thresholds. A recurring message is that immigrants who landed in the 1990s and the 2000s are not faring as well as those who landed in earlier decades. Deteriorating economic outcomes, coupled with rising levels of educational attainment among more recent landing cohorts, raise the question of whether there is a large and perhaps widening gap between immigrants’ expectations of life in Canada and their subsequent experiences of it.

Other evidence offers a more favourable starting point. Immigrants in the 2000-2001 landing cohort express positive views of the social and political environment in Canada, pointing to the importance of safety and security, rights and freedoms and peace and stability as aspects of Canadian life they like most. They also point to these factors as central in their decision to settle permanently in Canada. Furthermore, most immigrants, including those in economic admission categories, say they came to Canada for non-economic reasons, such as joining family members already here, providing a brighter future for their children and, enjoying a high quality of life. In this context, assessments of life in Canada may be more positive than economic outcomes alone might suggest.

A study examined how immigrants in the 2000-2001 landing cohort subjectively assess their life in Canada. More specifically, to what extent are they personally satisfied with their life in Canada? How has life in Canada measured up to their expectations of it? If given the opportunity, would they make the same decision again to come to Canada?
Immigrants’ assessments of their life in Canada warrant investigation for several reasons. First, the well-being of all Canadians is a central objective of public policy and is an important goal in its own right.

Measures of subjective well-being offer a useful complement to other approaches that focus on employment, income or health.

Second, immigrants’ assessments of their life in Canada can shed light on the factors that contribute to (or detract from) a positive settlement experience, with potential implications for settlement programs.

Third, the capacity to attract and retain skilled immigrants is increasingly viewed as a key ingredient for sustaining economic growth in western nations. Such capacity may be reduced if immigrant dissatisfaction is associated with higher rates of onward or return migration, or if dissatisfied immigrants tend to dissuade friends and family abroad from joining them in the host country.

Subjective well-being research has identified a broad range of factors associated with life satisfaction, some of which have been replicated in a smaller subset of literature on life satisfaction among immigrants.

A number of demographic variables are generally found to be correlated with life satisfaction among the general population. There is a well-documented U-shaped correlation between age and satisfaction, with satisfaction levels lower among individuals in their thirties and forties than among individuals in younger and older age groups. Individuals who are married or living in common-law are generally found to have higher levels of life satisfaction than those who have never been married, or are widowed, separated or divorced. In the aggregate, women tend to report higher life satisfaction than men, although gender differences are not significant in several studies focused on immigrants.

Education is an often-reported correlate of subjective well-being, with levels of life satisfaction rising in tandem with educational attainment. However, a 2004 study noted that this correlation tends to diminish or disappear when other factors such as health and employment status are taken into account.


Settlement experiences

The immigrants’ experiences in the host country have also been found to be correlated with levels of satisfaction. Perceptions of acceptance and welcome, particularly perceived discrimination, have received some research attention.

A central theme is how individuals adapt to the changing cultural contexts in which they are located. New immigrants may find themselves in a social and cultural milieu that is far different from that of their country of origin, facing different sets of norms, attitudes and behaviours.

In addition to the social and psychological aspects of settlement, immigrants also face a variety of logistical challenges. Some of these, such as navigating an unfamiliar city or finding housing, may be overcome fairly soon after arrival. Others, such as accessing health services, may be an ongoing challenge.


Material well-being

Studies show that the correlation between decreases in income and declines in life satisfaction tend to be stronger than the correlation between increases in income and improvements in life satisfaction.

The relationship between income and satisfaction may have particular relevance for new immigrants given variations in the strength of the correlation between income and satisfaction across the income distribution.

Individuals may use a variety of benchmarks for comparisons including what they want, what they had earlier in life, what they expected to have, what they think other people have and, what they feel they deserve.

In a study, respondents were asked several evaluative questions about their life in Canada. They answered using a five-point scale ranging from “completely dissatisfied” to “completely satisfied.”

About one out of 10 respondents had lived in Canada prior to immigrating, often on a student or work visa. Prior residents who subsequently immigrate to Canada may be a self-selected group, comprised of individuals whose past experiences in the country were particularly positive. They may also have more realistic expectations of life in Canada than those with no prior residence.

Of the 12,040 immigrants who completed the six-month questionnaire, 7,716 were subsequently located and completed questionnaires two, and then four, years after landing.
The other 4,324 were not retained in the sample either because they were not relocated, or were unwilling to complete subsequent questionnaires. This attrition rate of 37 per cent raises the question of whether it was the most dissatisfied immigrants who were lost. If dissatisfied immigrants were more likely than others to move, either within Canada or abroad in search of better opportunities, the chances of retaining them in the sample would have been disproportionately low.


Assessment of life in Canada

Most respondents have positive assessments of their life in Canada. Six months and four years after landing, just over 54.2 per cent said they were satisfied with life in Canada and almost 19 per cent said they were very, or completely, satisfied.

Combined, 73 per cent of respondents provided a favourable response to this question, 17.7 per cent of respondents were neutral in their assessment, saying they were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied with life in Canada, while 9.4 per cent said they were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied.

The vast majority of respondents (87 to 91 per cent) said that, if they had to make the decision again, they would still come to Canada.

   – Statistics Canada                            

Posted: Jul 4, 2012

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