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

1. Introduction

“Small things can spiral out of control when they happen to newcomers,” and “People, not everybody gets justice! Justice is when everybody feels safe, and I do not feel safe, I feel vulnerable.” These are comments from two participants in this study into the legal needs of immigrantsFootnote 1 in Greater Victoria and Vancouver.

The first comment attests to the struggles some immigrants experience when dealing with seemingly mundane activities such as trying to find a job or housing; the second comment reflects the intense isolation and powerlessness some immigrants experience when dealing with large and complex legal problems. This report shows that being denied jobs or housing because of prejudice, while struggling to navigate a system without fully understanding the laws and one’s own rights, all the while trying to learn a new language and build a new life, can indeed lead to feeling out of control. The report also shows that immigrants who are dealing with large and complex interrelated problems, often show a strong sense of resilience and strength while also feeling powerless, unsafe, and undervalued. Trying to navigate serious legal issues while having the perception that one is not heard and is powerless can strongly affect immigrants’ well-being. Listening to these voices and understanding the legal needs of immigrants is the focus of this report.

Background to Legal Needs Surveys

In a recent report, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) explains that legal needs surveys are meaningful for understanding peoples’ access to justice, which is “crucial for the development of effective civil justice policies, models and financing” (OECD/Open Society Foundations 2019, p. 11). Instead of looking at legal problems through the perspective of justice professionals and institutions, legal needs surveys take a “bottom-up” approach by identifying serious legal problems from the perspective of the individuals who experience them (Ibid.). Legal needs surveys capture the types of legal problems individuals face, explore the strategies people use to resolve their serious legal problems, and assess the outcomes and costs of dealing with these legal problems.

In Canada, legal needs surveys were conducted by the Department of Justice Canada in 2004, 2006, and 2008 (Currie 2005, 2009, 2016). Generally, legal needs surveys have been conducted by polling a large number of households across Canada by phone. Past legal needs surveys conducted in Canada showed that individuals with social disadvantages (i.e., individuals who are unemployed, on social assistance, divorced or separated, single parents, and visible minorities) are more likely to experience multiple serious legal problems (Currie 2009, 2016). However, there is limited knowledge about the experiences of specific groups, such as immigrants, who may be more likely to have social disadvantages. Recent immigrants may be particularly vulnerable to experiencing serious legal problems as they may face multiple challenges as they settle in Canada (Esses et al. 2013).

In order to get better insight into the immigrant experience when navigating through serious legal problems, this small qualitative study was designed to gather information from immigrant communities in Greater Victoria and Vancouver by recruiting a small number of individuals to take part in a 1.5-hour virtual interview.Footnote 2 Opting to engage in in-depth conversations with a small number of individuals means that a certain level of generalizability is given up in favour of being able to more carefully track an individual’s lived-experience and let them tell their story. As this report will show, it is important to give individuals who often feel that they are not heard the time to tell their story. This, according to some participants, can itself be a healing experience.

Immigration Trends in Vancouver and Greater Victoria

Vancouver and Greater Victoria are relatively close to each other, but significantly different regions with respect to immigration trends. Vancouver is a large metropolitan area on the mainland of British Columbia; Greater Victoria is the capital of British Columbia and includes a relatively small urban core with a larger rural margin around it. It is located on Vancouver Island, which makes the area less accessible and less well-connected than Vancouver.

According to the 2016 Census, the Vancouver area has close to 2.5 million residents, 41 percent of whom are immigrants, most of whom arrived from China; 65 percent of recent immigrants participate in the labour force. About 50 percent of residents in the Vancouver area are visible minorities (Statistics Canada 2017).

Greater Victoria has a population of 360,000, 18 percent of which are immigrants. Traditionally, immigrants to the Victoria area have been British, but more recently (2011–16) the top country of birth for immigrants has been the Philippines; 73 percent of recent immigrants participate in the labour force. About 14 percent of residents in Greater Victoria are visible minorities (Statistics Canada 2017). Thus, Greater Victoria is much smaller, includes more rural areas, and is significantly less diverse than Vancouver.

Research Questions

The goal in conducting interviews with immigrants in the Vancouver area and Greater Victoria was to answer the following research questions:

  1. What types of legal problems have immigrants experienced?Footnote 3 When there has been more than one problem, were the problems connected?
  2. How have immigrants tried to resolve their problems? What has been the outcome of these efforts?
  3. Have immigrants resolved their problems by recourse through the formal legal system? If not, why not?
  4. What have been the economic, social, and health impacts of these problems on immigrants?