A Qualitative Look at Serious Legal Problems Faced by Immigrants in Greater Victoria and Vancouver, British Columbia


One of the first barriers that many newcomers experience after arrival to Canada is their lack of familiarity with Canadian laws and rights. This lack of familiarity, together with the uncertainty that comes with the very first years living in a new country, affects immigrants’ readiness to respond to serious legal problems. A few trends emerged based on the 20 conversations conducted with immigrants in Greater Victoria and Vancouver, six of which are highlighted below.

Six Trends

  1. Discrimination is an underlying problem in most of the legal problems that immigrants experience, but few choose to challenge it. While not all cases focus on discrimination per se, often discrimination and bias exacerbate the issue itself or the solution. As one participant noted, “These problems are related because they are cultural systemic issues.” None of these will change if discrimination is not also being addressed.For example, when discrimination affects which job one can get on arrival, and when that job is physically taxing and not well-suited to one’s training, one might be more at risk for job-related injuries. When discrimination in turn affects the kind of accommodation one is offered, then discrimination affects both the development of the legal problem and the way the problem is arbitrated. Often, immigrants who experience discrimination see it as too elusive and not worth challenging.
  2. The more complicated the legal issues an immigrant faces, the more serious the consequences they experience. This is in line with Currie’s more general claim that there is evidence that the more problems individuals experience, the more likely they are to suffer from health and social consequences (Currie 2009). In this study, women comprised the majority of immigrants experiencing multiple serious legal problems. While this is based on a small sample, it is important to attend to multiple factors that might put immigrant women of colour at risk for housing and food insecurity in addition to experiencing health and social consequences.Footnote 17
  3. Certain immigration categories might make an immigrant more vulnerable when they are experiencing legal problems. In this study, people who arrived as refugees and immigrants who entered Canada under the family category experienced more serious legal issues than economic immigrants. Because the sample in this study is small, one should be extremely careful drawing conclusions from this, especially because the economic immigrants in this study were also more often recent newcomers, and several might not have been in Canada long enough to have experienced multiple complex legal problems. Nonetheless, all the women who reported family and/or child custody issues had arrived as family class (related to a Canadian or immigrant spouse) and commented specifically on their feelings of isolation. There might be an interesting tension here: while arriving with somebody might make one less isolated (one’s “stronghold, the only person you got”), having to rely on one other person might also create extra risks if the relationship changes or is abusive. In addition, it is well known that domestic abusers leverage their power and control by isolating their partners from the wider community. Immigrant women might be especially vulnerable to such isolation in an abusive relationship.Footnote 18
  4. Immigrants appreciate the legal assistance resources that Canada has to offer. Many participants wish there was better support for these resources so that more people would be eligible for them, more hours would be available, and the process would be faster.
  5. Education levels are not a good predictor of being able to navigate legal issues in Canada. Most immigrants interviewed in this study had university educations but also experienced significant problems trying to navigate through legal problems and indicated that they did not know what to do and where to go. In the interviews, participants suggested that important remedies to this are:
    • the availability of experts, including, but not limited to, legal, human rights, immigration, and human resources professionals (and being able to speak to them);
    • increasing the accessibility of information on government websites;
    • clearer explanation of overly technical language; and
    • better awareness of and access to certain community resources (such as transition houses).Footnote 19
  6. The legal problems that newcomers experience during the first five years in Canada are more likely to be related to finding and maintaining housing and employment. Newcomers at that moment are more vulnerable to fraud, discrimination, and working and/or living in less than ideal circumstances. In three separate cases, an early job (so-called survival jobs, which often involve more physically taxing labour like working in a warehouse)Footnote 20 led to an injury that affected the participants’ health and social and financial well-being for years. Finding a sense of security through having a steady income, safe housing, and more time to spend on things that do not relate to one’s basic survival, makes a great difference to one’s ability to face a legal problem. Two participants said that they chose to not pursue legal problems that they faced as newcomers, but that several years later they were able to successfully challenge a similar legal problem. They indicated that being well-housed and having a good job and time to do the work made all the difference.

In addition to these six trends, it is important to mention in more depth two themes that were at play throughout most of the cases the participants described and that caused internal friction: (i) the importance of being able to connect to peers and the wider community while also not being able to always rely on them, and (ii) the burdens and the benefits of having to be strong in the face of the problems experienced. These two themes are discussed below.

The Challenges and Benefits of Reaching out to Peers and Communities

Except for a few websites, participants reported that the government websites were rarely helpful to them because of the complicated issues they faced, and the level of difficulty of the language used on the websites. By far the most helpful action they took was to directly connect with an actual official or a legal, human rights, immigration, counselling, or human resources expert (through phone, Zoom, email, or in person). Participants were also more willing to follow their advice, and, in most cases, did follow the advice given. But it is not always easy to find such experts and professionals and not everybody is eligible for assistance. Consequently, many participants turned to friends and family, in their home countries or in Canada, and online forums to connect with other newcomers, to discuss strategies for countering legal problems. In one illustrative case, a participant shared the following:

I would say everything is like word of mouth…there are people who are here and [they are] just like me, so they told me about the process of filing this application, what are the stages, and what sort of documentation I will need…I was just browsing through some discussion forums, where there is always like, so many people from different ages, or family sponsorship, PR [Permanent Residence], work permit, in different topics: what’s happening, who got what sort of update?

The complication of having to rely on the advice of peers is that peers do not always have correct information. Susan McDonald, in her research with Spanish-speaking immigrant women in domestic violence situations, showed that their reliance on peers for information meant that the information the women were getting was often “inaccurate, incomplete or out-of-date” (McDonald & Cross 2001). Although in this current study there were no clear examples of people receiving inaccurate or out-of-date information, several participants did state that friends were often just as unsure about the next steps as they were. Peers also did not always share the same experiences and therefore could not be fully relied upon:

Honestly, reaching out to my friends was the worst…I mean, everybody’s different and they’re my friends and I respect them, of course. But your friends sometimes aren’t helpful to reach out to with these issues because…they have different experiences.

In some cases, participants felt that these personal connections were all they could rely on because they were not aware that more reliable sources of information were accessible and available to them:

[Interviewer:] So it’s the forums and friends and colleagues that have been major sources of getting advice. Have you gone to any immigrant-serving organizations in your area to talk about some of this, to see if they had information?

[Participant:] I don’t know about immigration organizations, all I know about is immigration consultants. Yeah, private consultants. I do not go to them because I don’t trust them.

Making sure immigrants have proper access to advice by experts (or navigators who can refer them to appropriate sources) is an important way to make sure that people have access to information that helps them lower barriers to justice.

This caveat to consulting with peers about legal problems does not mean that these personal contacts are always detrimental to the person experiencing legal problems. On the contrary, connecting with friends and peers in person (or on forums) often helped lessen feelings of isolation, of not being heard, and of powerlessness. Knowing that one is not the only one experiencing a problem and sharing one’s experience can itself be a great support. Thus, while personal contacts might not always be the best places to get up-to-date advice, such communities certainly offer a crucially important function.

Not surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has made many of the legal problems harder to navigate. Without the ability to meet someone in person or walk into an organization to get advice, it is harder to overcome the lack of information that some newcomers experience and it has also made it harder to create peer communities of support.

Feeling Powerless and Being Strong

The deep emotions that often accompany immigrants navigating through legal problems can create a barrier to justice itself. One newcomer explained that he did not pursue action against an employer because he felt embarrassed that he had let himself be manipulated and tricked into a position of powerlessness. Other participants expressed similar feelings: being stuck, with their future on hold, and feeling insecure:

So that thing is still oscillating, like where is my destination, where am I going to finally settle?

It makes me feel less of myself.

One individual, who spoke highly of the natural beauty of British Columbia, ended the conversation by expressing his feeling of inadequacy and a sense of hopelessness:

Canada, you need to feed my soul, not just my eyes.

The more complicated the problems that participants experienced, the more devastating the social and health impacts on them. People experiencing serious problems reported a more intense experience of being isolated. The help that was available for them also did not always match their own capacity to take legal action or make decisions:

Our state was way too vulnerable at that time [to be able to process and make informed decisions].

These feelings of shame, self-doubt, inertia, hopelessness, vulnerability, or worry can stop someone from taking legal action and pursuing what is their right. But these feelings of despair and powerlessness should not be confused with a complete inability to act or to act with an absence of strength. On the contrary, in most of the cases in which participants chose not to respond to a legal problem, they were still actively pursuing career possibilities, finding safety for their families, strategically choosing what was most beneficial to them at the moment, or making changes to their lives that might better their situation. There can be as much strategy in not pursuing a legal case as there can be in trying to pursue it, and there can be as much strength in choosing to “keep on going.”

Although there is often a sense of feeling powerless while facing complicated legal problems, at the same time the actions of many immigrants reflect a strong sense of strength and determination. One participant explained that trying to find their way in a new country with a different and unfamiliar legal system while also taking care of their families, finding jobs, finding housing, and keeping themselves and their loved ones safe, feels like they are “moving mountains.” It is telling that people who are “moving mountains” while navigating through difficult issues, feel powerless at the same time. It is also telling that people who show a tremendous amount of strength and courage experience at the same time what seem like insurmountable barriers to solving the serious legal problems they face. One participant referred to this courage and strength of fellow immigrants when he urged his peers:

Don’t give up just yet, stay strong it takes a lot of effort and courage to move here. For the sake of that courage, do not give up!Footnote 21

But this call for determination should also be extended to the legal systems and community services themselves, who should be equally determined to lower the barriers to justice that immigrants may face by making sure that information is accessible, treatment is equitable, and that there are ample, well-known, and well-supported resources available to assist immigrants navigating though legal problems. This type of determination on the side of people who have the power to create meaningful change would make it possible for immigrants to use their strength, determination, and courage for something much more rewarding: to create a good life for themselves and to help enrich the communities we live in.