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

3. Findings

This report is based on 20 in-depth interviews with immigrants in British Columbia. The goal of this study is to present the lived-experiences of several immigrants in this region, which can give further insight into some of the challenges that immigrants in Canada might face. See Tables 1 and 2 for summaries of the findings.

Types of Serious Legal Problems

The 20 immigrants interviewed spoke about 42 different (but sometimes related) legal problems they experienced. Some of the participants reported experiencing multiple legal problems at the same time or in succession. In order of frequency, the main themes of these problems were:

Figure 2: Types of Legal Problems

Figure 2: Types of Legal Problems

Figure 2: Types of Legal Problems – Text version

This is a donut graph with seven different segments. The largest segment is light green and says 10. The legend indicates “discrimination and harassment”. The next segment is orange and says 9, indicating “family and child custody”. The next segment is light orange and says 7, indicating “housing”. The next segment is lime green and says 6, “employment”. The next segment is red and says 6, “services”. The next segment is purple and says 2, “immigration”. The last segment is dark green and says 1, “police”.

1) Discrimination and harassment

The most often reported legal problem was discrimination (10 cases). Discrimination means treating someone differently or unfairly because of a personal characteristic or distinction, which, whether intentional or not, has an effect that imposes disadvantages not imposed on others or that withholds or limits access that is given to others. Under the Human Rights Act of British Columbia, there are 12 prohibited grounds of discrimination: race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, religion, marital status, family status, physical or mental disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or age of that person or that group or class of persons. In tenancy and job-related cases, people are protected on some additional grounds: (i) lawful source of income (in case of tenancy); and (ii) political belief and being convicted of a criminal or summary conviction offence that is unrelated to the employment or to the intended employment of that person (in case of employment).Footnote 9

In 60 percent of discrimination cases, participants mentioned discrimination in the context of trying to find housing and employment. This type of discrimination happens a lot to newcomers but also to established immigrants. Someone shared: “I feel that often I am only selected to increase the diversity ratio of their applicant pool, but never seriously considered for the job,” and another shared: “Landlords want us to show we have a job first, but we need a place to stay.” They worry that they are passed over for housing because they do not yet have a job or even because of the type of foods they cook:

We had shown the proof of funds [or proof of job] statement [to the landlord]. Even after having several conversations, that person was not ready to believe us…some people when I inquired [rejected us] maybe because of the cuisines that we are preparing in the home, some may not be liking that smell, for example.

The difficulty with many cases of discrimination is that participants are often not fully sure that this is the reason that they are passed over because landlords and employers usually give other reasons for not giving them the job or the house. This can lead to stress and self-doubt, as was initially the case for a participant who had to go on stress leave after being repeatedly passed over for promotion:

The people [they will consider before me], they’re obviously white people and they’re younger than me…and when I inquire about why I was not taken into consideration for these opportunities, it was pointed out that I didn’t have the right experience. And I don’t think that was really necessarily the truth, because none of these other people had the experience, but they were given the opportunity to take these jobs and were offered training, where for me that was not there.

In two of the discrimination cases, the discrimination came from government officials, including within the legal system itself. It involved people making assumptions based on religion or sexual orientation. For example,

We were asking the [provincial government] worker: “Do you highlight the religion of each family?” She said no. “Then why did you mention my religion [Muslim] in your report?” No answer.

And in another case:

I’m not a straight person…I am a person of colour. I am an immigrant. …And I think to him I was…to him I was less of a person…how [the legal official] spoke to me, and how he stopped, and he began asking questions that are not relevant to the proceeding. They were personal questions. They were irrelevant questions.Footnote 10

Harassment was reported by two women of colour in multiple situations: at gyms, health care settings, bars, and outside on the street.

Bias as background: Interpreted broadly, perceived bias or an undervaluing of immigrants and people of colour is a connecting thread in many of the cases discussed in this study and is mentioned in more than the 10 cases of discrimination or harassment listed above. In those other cases the bias mentioned is not connected to a specific incident of discrimination (and for that reason not included in the tally of 10 above) but rather is described as being always there in the background, as a “latent bigotry” that is constantly faced, or as a subtle form of belittling that immigrants regularly face:

Sometimes as immigrants we’re not very outspoken because of our language skills… but that does not mean that we don’t know anything.

This more subtle form of bias also affects their ability to thrive and it often exacerbates the difficulty of navigating the legal problems they face.

2) Family-related problems (Including child custody issues)

Six participants (five women and one man) reported a total of nine cases of experiencing serious legal problems within family relationships: five cases involved a breakdown of a family or relationship, and abuse followed by a divorce or separation, and four cases involved child custody or other problems involving parental responsibilities. Three of these six participants reported experiencing both a family breakdown and child custody issues.

Missing child payments, sexual and physical abuse, and psychological and legal manipulation by the other party were often associated with child custody issues (three out of four cases). Child custody and family issues were often complicated by other legal issues, such as losing access to a house, and losing jobs:

All of a sudden, I was a person that was homeless, and that was very shocking for me. I’ve never been in that situation…but then then I realized as well again, how vulnerable we are and how easy it is to lose housing.

Most of these are cases of profound loss: “I am losing all, to keep my child safe” said a mother who experienced food insecurity, housing insecurity, and trauma after escaping her situation. These kinds of cases with multiple layers of vulnerability, were by far the most complicated cases shared during this study. All of them, except one, went to court or are waiting for a court date in the future and most of them had legal aid.

3) Housing Problems

The seven participants reported housing problems that included: a fraudulent rental that caused a newcomer to lose the deposit he had already paid, failure to get a damage deposit returned (two cases), threats after leaving a bad housing situation, a landlord’s failure to fix things and reneging on promises, a dispute with a neighbour about property boundaries, and difficulty dealing with an unruly and threatening housemate. The majority of these cases happened in the first five years of the newcomers’ arrival.

4) Employment-related Problems

Six participants reported employment problems. In three cases, they involved injuries on the job. Two employer-related cases describe not being paid for a job done when working at a first job after arrival. For example, a participant was enticed with great verbal promises about pay and working conditions, but without a written contract the employee effectively ended up working long hours for free. Another participant’s pay was withheld for three months and by the time she tried to pursue it, the employer had gone bankrupt.

5) Problems obtaining services and government assistance

This group of problems includes a variety of legal issues, all of which involve being denied a service or having to negotiate for a service (whether from government or from a private business) or a service not being delivered properly. Two cases were related to obtaining health insurance, one was about being misdiagnosed by a doctor, one was related to getting a child tax benefit, one to car insurance, and one was related to services delivered by a moving company. For example, one participant mentioned that his extended dental benefits were denied retroactively. Another participant, who had had a car accident, mentioned that she was repeatedly misdiagnosed by the doctors she saw and struggled filing a claim with the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC) because it involved interprovincial negotiations. Finally, a participant shared that a moving company did $2,000 damage to his furniture.

6) Immigration problems

Two participants reported experiencing problems with immigration. This included an excessively long wait for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to process the sponsorship of a spouse. Several participants mentioned IRCC’s sometimes slow processing times, that processes are not always transparent for clients and that files are hard to access. The second immigration-related case was one in which a participant was defrauded by a person posing as an immigration lawyer online. That person kept asking for higher fees, but the requested immigration advice was never delivered.

7) Police

One participant mentioned that his social worker called the police to do a wellness check on him after being concerned about him feeling depressed. The participant was not at home, but has several cameras in his home. He was able to see that the police did indeed enter his home, with guns drawn. He now feels unsafe at home and is thinking of filing an official complaint, but he is worried that this will affect his ability to stay in Canada as a protected person.

Strategies for Resolving Legal Problems

Of the 42 legal problems reported in this study, participants took legal recourse in 18 cases (43 percent). Respondents did not take any legal action in 24 cases (57 percent). Of those who did not take any action, half found other ways to navigate through the issue and half did not do anything else to challenge the case.

Figure 3: Strategies

Figure 3: Strategies

Figure 3: Strategies – Text version

This is a donut graph with three segments. The largest segment is green and says 18. The legend indicates that green is “legal recourse”. The next segment is orange and says 12, “other response”. The last segment is yellow and says 12, “no response

Strategies employed when faced with a legal problem were grouped into three categories:

  1. No response (28%)
  2. Legal recourse (43%)
  3. Other responses (28%)

Legal aid and the resolution of legal cases are discussed under point 2. See also Table 1.

1) No response

Twelve participants did not take any action in response to the legal problem they faced. Especially in the case of discrimination, participants reported they did not pursue this further in court or even challenge the decision directly person-to-person because they needed to keep going, find other jobs, look for other housing opportunities, or to keep waiting for services to be delivered. Only two of the 10 discrimination cases were pursued further. Discrimination is seen as hard to prove and the need to have some job or some housing trumps the work that would be needed to challenge a particular job or particular housing situation. In addition, some of the cases of discrimination happened in the middle of facing other serious legal problems, such as going through separation or child custody hearings. The other issues that people face frequently demand so much attention that the underlying issues with discrimination are not pursued further.

Like discrimination, respondents felt that it often was difficult to prove that harassment happened (especially when the woman had been alone with her harasser). Attempting to avoid harassment is hard to do:

Harassment [and hyper-sexualization of women of colour] is everywhere, all the time, constant and bold, it makes me refrain from meeting white people.

Temporary residents have fewer avenues for responding because many service providers can only offer services to permanent residents.

2) Legal recourse

In 18 of the 42 cases discussed in this report, the respondents used the official legal system in place to respond to the problem. A few instructive cases are discussed below.

Table 1: Cases where there was legal recourse
Type of Legal Case per Problem Legal Recourse Legal Assistance Resolved Ongoing
Discrimination & Harassment Court Legal Aid Yes No
Discrimination & Harassment Mediation Self No Yes
EmploymentFootnote 1 of Table 1 Court Legal Aid Yes No
EmploymentFootnote 1 of Table 1 Work Safe ?Footnote 5 of Table 1 Yes No
EmploymentFootnote 1 of Table 1 ?Footnote 5 of Table 1 ?Footnote 5 of Table 1 Yes No
EmploymentFootnote 1 of Table 1 Work Safe Legal Aid Yes No
FamilyFootnote 2 of Table 1 Court Self No No
FamilyFootnote 2 of Table 1 Court Legal Aid Yes No
FamilyFootnote 2 of Table 1 Court Crown Counsel Yes No
FamilyFootnote 2 of Table 1 Waiting for Court Legal Aid No Yes
FamilyFootnote 2 of Table 1 Waiting for Court Legal Aid No Yes
FamilyFootnote 2 of Table 1 Court Legal Aid Yes No
FamilyFootnote 2 of Table 1 Court Legal Aid Yes No
FamilyFootnote 2 of Table 1 Court ?Footnote 5 of Table 1 Yes No
HousingFootnote 3 of Table 1 RTB Self Yes No
HousingFootnote 3 of Table 1 RTB Self Yes No
ServiceFootnote 4 of Table 1 Ombudsperson Self Yes No
ServiceFootnote 4 of Table 1 ICBC Self Yes No

3) Other responses and strategies

In 12 cases, individuals sought resolutions other than through the legal system.

Barriers to Justice

Eight different categories of barriers to justice were identified. In many cases, the barriers are related to each other and many participants experienced multiple barriers at the same time.

  1. Lack of information: For the majority of the 20 participants (18 individuals or 90 percent) a lack of information was the main reason that they initially had a hard time finding help or did not pursue help at all. They were unfamiliar with the Canadian legal system; they did not know what their rights were; they did not know where to go or who to talk to; they did not know what to do; what services and organizations were out there to help; or how to interpret information on official government websites. Multiple participants mentioned that they had not known initially about transition houses, settlement service providers, or legal aid.
  2. Language and jargon: In six cases (30 percent) English language ability, or the ability to read complicated information on official websites, was perceived as a great barrier to justice. Except for the provincial government’s websites for housing and tenancy and the BC Ombudsperson,Footnote 14 most government and legal websites were described as difficult to understand and unclear. While many official government websites are not seen as helpful, most professional advice that was given in person or in corresponding with participants through email was considered valuable and helpful.Most participants rated themselves relatively high (7 or 8) for English understanding, and in 13 cases, English was spoken at home as a second or first language. This suggests that for the majority of these participants, it was not English per se that was perceived as a barrier but the more technical jargon some legal and government sites use, and the complexity of the legal system itself.
  3. Time: Time was mentioned explicitly by six individuals as a barrier to justice. But in many more stories the notion that there was not enough time and that time pressure increased the stress of a situation, came up as a side issue. As one participant said:
    I just need a job, I have no time to challenge this.
  4. Cost: The cost of pursuing legal action was mentioned specifically by three individuals. But the fact that none of the individuals who went to court were able to hire lawyers other than through legal aid or that they chose to represent themselves, suggests that the cost of regular representation constituted a major barrier to justice.
  5. Legal aid barriers: While those who received legal aid were mostly appreciative of the service, there were also significant barriers associated with legal aid. Participants were frustrated with how slow and limited legal aid was in terms of who is eligible and what cases qualify (criminal charges, mental health and prison issues, serious family problems, child protection matters, and immigration problems). Legal aid lawyers were perceived as less experienced and having less time to spend on a problem than other lawyers. Two participants mentioned that other lawyers “played the game” by unnecessarily stalling things in court so that the participant’s legal aid hours ran out of time. For example, a participant recounted that the “regular” lawyers would request a delay on the proceedings to ask for an interpreter and then later they rejected that interpreter, which caused another delay. A participant said:
    The other lawyers…know how to eat up the hours…the other lawyers know how to play the game, basically.
  6. Perceived chance of success: Many participants brought up that acting on a perceived injustice was simply not worth it:
    I have to be very careful on which battles do I want to pick. In this case, I’d rather sacrifice the fit in the organization because I’m not sure when I’m going to get another job. I’m not sure how long it would take me to get to an offer.
  7. Fear of consequences: Especially concerning discrimination, many participants had a sense of powerlessness and felt that there was little they could do about the incidents themselves; they believed that calling out the discriminatory behaviour (especially of an authority figure) would make people perceive them as a “troublemaker.” In one case an individual thought it might affect his immigration status in Canada. This fear of the consequences of speaking up was one of the reasons they did not further pursue the issue.
  8. Multiple legal problems: Experiencing multiple legal problems make navigating a situation more difficult:
    I was moving mountains at the time.
    Experiencing multiple complex problems at the same time is often mentioned in conjunction with a feeling of powerlessness, having little time, and mounting costs, and all these together contribute to making it harder to solve the legal problems or to settle them to their satisfaction. Several participants stated that they were not happy with the way a legal problem was resolved, or that they would want to pursue further action but did not see a possibility for doing so after having already worked through multiple other steps. For example, two women who dealt with multiple issues, of separation, child support payments, and/or custody issues, also wished to divorce their husband: “I want to cut the link and be divorced.” But neither was able to proceed because of the cost and not having any more hours left to receive legal aid after having worked through the other problems first.

Other Factors Affecting Experiences and Outcomes

  1. Area of residence: Among the participants in Vancouver, there were more newcomers (80 percent) than among the participants from Greater Victoria (1 percent). Twenty percent of the cases in Vancouver were complex and serious, while in Greater Victoria, 50 percent of cases were complex and serious. These regional differences should be interpreted with care because the numbers of participants were small. It is also important to remember that the lead organization of the study is located in Victoria. With 50 years of service and being the largest settlement service provider in the area, it is not surprising that ICA was able to reach more established immigrants in their own region. Most immigrants in the region know ICA very well. “Those people are awesome,” as one participant said. A call for participation from ICA is based on that long-developed relationship of trust with the newcomer community. This might also explain why in Vancouver fewer immigrants were willing to share complex and personal problems with an interviewer from an organization they did not know: there was no previous relationship of trust that would have facilitated that.
  2. Gender: Men and women experienced most issues equally. However, men more often reported problems related to employment, including discrimination during job applications (seven men and one woman) and women more often reported problems related to family relations (five women and one man).
  3. Connectedness and serious effects: Eleven participants experienced multiple serious legal issues, and for eight of them the issues were connected. Those who experienced more legal issues also reported the most serious health, economic, and social consequences. For the purpose of tracking this, “most serious consequences”Footnote 15 were determined to include the following:
    • Having a health issue that required significant medical attention or counselling
    • Housing insecurity
    • Food insecurity
    • Being or becoming a single parent
    • Significant loss of a sense of safety
    • Lost custody of a child
    All nine participants who mention serious consequences experienced at least two and at most six serious legal problems (at the same time or in succession). See Table 2 (p. 29).
  4. Education’s effect on finding and understanding information. Most participants, 95 percent, had at least a bachelor’s degree, 25 percent had a graduate degree, and two mentioned having studied law in their home country.Footnote 16 In addition, most participants (95 percent) indicated that there was a lack of information about the legal issue they faced, and many of them also shared that language, jargon, and time pressure hampered their understanding of the issue. Considering that most participants had university educations but also encountered significant barriers to finding and understanding the information available, there does not seem to be a clear relationship between the level of education, understanding information, and access to information.
  5. Immigrant status and severity of legal problems: A much clearer relation is visible between immigration status and the severity of the legal issues experienced. All cases in which multiple legal issues were reported (two to six issues) and that also had the most serious consequences (as in Table 2 and point three above), were cases reported by immigrants who arrived through family class or as someone with a refugee background. Economic immigrants and individuals with temporary status reported experiencing fewer legal issues at the same time or consecutively (one or two issues) and less serious consequences from those issues. Again, the fact that this group did not report what was called above “most serious consequences” does not mean that there were no health, economic, or social consequences at all.

Health, Economic, and Social Impacts

Of the eight participants experiencing the most serious consequences (see Table 2), five were women (63 percent) and three were men. In six of these eight cases (75 percent), participants experienced family or child custody issues.

  1. Health consequences: Every single participant described some level of being stressed, anxious, fearful, or sad because of the legal problems that they experienced. Stress or health issues that most seriously affected well-being concerned needing medical assistance or counselling to help deal with the stress, an injury, or the medical effects of stress and anxiety. For example, one woman had to be admitted to hospital with anxiety and depression due to the abuse she experienced:
    I have no money, I cannot go back, I feel trapped, I cannot get out, all I wanted to do was to die.
    Forty percent of participants experienced serious health effects as a result of legal issues.
  2. Economic consequences: Eighty-five percent of participants reported some financial hardship in response to their legal problems. Because of legal aid the actual legal fees stayed low. The main economic burden was expressed instead as a loss of wages (six cases), or losses of assets like a house or lost savings, or a loss of being housed (nine cases). Lost wages were described as either wages for a job that was never offered (as in the discrimination cases), or as a reduction in the level of income. Several participants expressed that it is difficult to quantify loss in financial terms:
    “it is unmeasurable,” and “it is stopping me from growing, from going or growing elsewhere.”
  3. Social consequences: Seventy-five percent of respondents felt that the legal problems they experienced affected their relationships with people around them, their friends, and their family. Fifty percent of respondents reported strong feelings of isolation, saying:
    “There are so many hoops and I am on my own,” and “after this problem I got to know that I don’t have anyone.”
    Isolation, not having friends and family around, was also what made some of the problems much harder to overcome from the start. Many participants mentioned that the lack of family made it harder to navigate through life in Canada. Not surprisingly, in family law cases and custody issues that involved a loss of a child, a family, or a community, they felt the sense of being alone most strongly. In those cases, the health-related issues were also the most severe. In the case of some people who moved here as couples, they were providing all the support for each other:
    The other person you moved with is stronghold, is the only person you got.
    In one case, the serious legal problem resulted in an increase in community, when renters from one apartment building helped each other navigate the negotiations with their landlord. They were each other’s witnesses, helped keep track of promises, and took notes for each other.
    We did not even know we could do something like this, we were kind of each other’s shrink and sounding board. We helped through everything.
Table 2: Number of Legal Problems, Barriers & Consequences
Legal problems Barriers & consequences
# Legal Problems per Participant Number of Problems Related Barriers Serious Health Issue Most Serious Consequence
1 6 5 Lack of Information Injury Housing insecurity
Language Depression Safety
2 4Footnote 1 of Table 2 2 Lack of information Injury Housing insecurity
3 4Footnote 1 of Table 2 0 Lack of information Stress Housing insecurity
Complex jargon
4 3Footnote 1 of Table 2 3 Lack of information Anxiety Lost custody
Cost Housing insecurity
Complex jargon
5 3Footnote 1 of Table 2 2 Lack of information Injury Lost custody
6 3 2 Lack of information Injury  
7 2Footnote 1 of Table 2 2 Lack of information Depression Housing insecurity
Time Food insecurity
Cost Single parent
8 2Footnote 1 of Table 2 2 Lack of information Trauma Housing insecurity
Isolation Food insecurity
Time Single parent
9 2 2 Lack of information    
10 2 0 Lack of information    
11 2 0 None    
12 1 n/a Lack of information    
13 1 n/a Lack of information    
Immigration Status
14 1 n/a Lack of information    
15 1 n/a Lack of information    
16 1 n/a Lack of information    
17 1 n/a Lack of information    
18 1 n/a Lack of information    
19 1 n/a Lack of information    
20 1 n/a Time