A Qualitative Look at Serious Legal Problems Facing Immigrants in London and Toronto, Ontario



Between August and December 2020, a total of 21 online interviews were conducted with immigrants based in London, Ontario (17 interviews) and Toronto, Ontario (4 interviews). Immigrants were recruited through two immigrant-serving agencies. In London, immigrants were recruited through the South London Neighbourhood Resource Centre, and in Toronto, they were recruited through COSTI Immigrant Services. Both agencies distributed flyers through various channels to invite immigrants to participate in the study. The flyers included a variety of examples of serious problems or disputes that might have been experienced and would be relevant to the study. Interested immigrants then volunteered to participate in the study if they had experienced a serious legal problem in the previous three years. On only one occasion was an immigrant who volunteered to participate screened out, and this was because she had not experienced a serious legal problem. Unfortunately, recruiting immigrants in Toronto was more difficult than expected. According to COSTI Immigrant Services, the pandemic made it more difficult to recruit interested individuals.

The online interviews were conducted via Zoom with an interviewer and a notetaker, and all interviews were also recorded (with participants’ permission) so central details and quotes could be checked later. When needed (N = 11), interviews were conducted with the help of professional interpreters (Arabic, Spanish, Kurdish, and Persian).

The interviews were semi-structured. We developed an interview guide with central questions and follow-up probes (see Appendix). The questions focused on the types of serious legal problems that the interviewees had faced in the last three years. The interview guide also included questions about the strategies that the interviewees used to resolve these problems and whether these strategies included the involvement of the legal system. In addition, we asked interviewees about the current status of their serious legal problem(s) and about the economic, social, and health consequences of having to deal with their serious legal problems. At the end of each interview, we also asked the interviewees a set of background questions. The interviews lasted between 1.5 and 2 hours, and all participants were compensated with a $30 Tim Horton’s gift card for their time.

Analysis of Themes in the Interviews

In order to identify the main themes covered during the interviews, three coders first independently reviewed the interview notes and audio-recordings, and then together determined the main themes by consensus. Themes were determined for each of the main questions of the interview: a) types of problems faced and main factors contributing to the problems; b) strategies for resolving the problems, difficulties faced in this regard, and outcomes; c) recourse to the formal legal system; and d) economic, social, and health impacts.

Description of Interviewees

Twelve immigrants identified as female, seven as male, one as transgender, and one as unidentified. Immigrants were between 19 to 60 years old, with a mean age of 39. The majority of the interviewees (15) immigrated to Canada as refugees or refugee claimants. The remaining immigrants were sponsored by family members (three) or entered Canada as a skilled worker (one), as a temporary foreign worker (one), or as an international student (one). Most participants were recruited in London, Ontario.

Of the 17 immigrants interviewed in London, 16 settled in London after immigrating to Canada. Of the four immigrants interviewed in Toronto, all immigrants settled in Toronto after immigrating to Canada. At the time they were interviewed, the immigrants had been in Canada between six and 82 months, with a mean of 32 months.

The immigrants were born in a variety of countries, which include: Afghanistan (one), Colombia (six), Cuba (one), Egypt (two), Honduras (one), Iran (one), Iraq (two), Jordan (two), Kuwait (one), Lebanon (one), Palestine (one), Saudi Arabia (one), and Syria (one). In terms of citizenship, none of the interviewees had Canadian citizenship. With the exception of two individuals, all immigrants still had the citizenship from their birth countries. One individual had been born in Kuwait, but had Iraqi citizenship, and another individual had been born in Saudi Arabia, but had Syrian citizenship. In terms of ethnicity, most immigrants identified either as Arab (nine) or Latin American (seven). The rest identified as West Asian (two), Black (one), as both White and Arab (one), and as “other” (i.e., Yazidi, one).

Slightly more than 40 percent of the immigrants were either married (seven) or in a common-law relationship (two). Close to 30 percent of the immigrants were separated (three) or divorced (three). One person was widowed, and the rest were single (five). On average, immigrants’ household size included 4.52 individuals (range = 1 to 9).

The interviewees differed in their self-rated English language skills. On a scale from 1 to 10, where one is no skills and ten is excellent skills, some immigrants reported having no or poor English skills and some reported having excellent English skills (speaking: mean = 5.66, range = 2 to 10; understanding:mean = 6.69, range = 3 to 10; reading: mean = 6.55, range = 1 to 10; and writing: mean = 6.02, range = 1 to 10). On average, immigrants reported slightly lower English-speaking skills than English understanding, reading, and writing skills. Only six immigrants reported having some French skills. This included one individual with good French skills and five with very basic French skills. The languages spoken most often at home were Spanish (eight), Arabic (seven), English (three), Kurdish (one), Dari (one), and a combination of Arabic and English (one).

The immigrants had various levels of education. Almost 25 percent of the immigrants had less than a high school diploma (five). Approximately 20 percent of the immigrants had a high school diploma or a high school equivalency certificate (four). The rest had a college or other non-university certificate or diploma (two), a university certificate or diploma below the bachelor’s level (one), a bachelor’s degree (five), or a university graduate degree (four). The majority of immigrants obtained their education abroad.

Slightly more than 40 percent of participants were earning a living either by being employed full time (three), employed part time (four), or self-employed (two). Almost 25 percent of the immigrants were unemployed and looking for work (five). The rest were either unemployed but not looking for work (three), or they were students (two) or homemakers (two).

We also asked immigrants whether their employment status had changed due to the pandemic. The majority (19) reported no change in employment status. One individual who had a part-time job before the pandemic became unemployed and was looking for work. Another individual mentioned that her husband had worked before COVID-19 for extra income, but had stopped working completely once the pandemic started.

Out of the 21 immigrants interviewed, five did not know or want to disclose their monthly household income before taxes and deductions. For the remaining 16 immigrants, their monthly household income before taxes and deductions was reported as ranging from $240 to $7,500. The average monthly income before taxes and deductions was $2,602.69 and the median monthly income before taxes and deductions was $2,233.50.