Making Victoria’s Newcomers Feel at Home

Entering the VIRCS office you cannot miss the rack of toys, a corner dedicated for the “drop-in day care” program, which the agency runs so clients can safely leave their children during appointments. Haixia Liu, a settlement worker with the agency takes a break.

by Salman A. Javid

On August 2, 2012, Victoria celebrated 150 years of history by launching a refurbished steam train in a recreation of rail services that date back to 1862.

Located on Vancouver Island, on the western edge of Canada, the city is the capital of the province of British Columbia. With a population of 350,000, it is a one and a half hour ferry trip from the lower mainland – a fact that many Canadians don’t know – and is not in any sense considered to be a suburb of the City of Vancouver.

A gold rush in the 1850s attracted many Chinese immigrants to BC, and the numbers increased again in the 1880s, when thousands of Chinese immigrants worked to build the railway system through the Rocky Mountains. Today Victoria is home to the second oldest Chinatown in North America (next to San Francisco).

East Asian immigration numbers to BC declined steeply after 1885, but resumed in the last half of the 20th century and increased sharply again in the 1990s. Landing at the Vancouver International Airport there are welcome signs posted in three languages: English, French and Chinese.

According to the 2006 census, approximately 16 percent of the 1.1 million new immigrants to Canada over the previous five years settled in BC. Outside of Ontario, BC had the highest proportion of foreign-born population in 2006.

In her statement in the 2012 edition of the BC Newcomers’ Guide to Resources and Services, Prime Minister Christy Clark stated that “every year we welcome more than 40,000 new immigrants,” emphasizing that “we are putting families first, and part of our job is to ensure you feel at home.”

A Cup of Coffee at Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society

A newcomer to Victoria, I decided I decided to visit the Indian Mela Festival. The two-day event in August featured Indian music, dancing, fashion show and much more. A major part of more than one million Indian immigrants in Canada are located in BC.

The Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society had a booth at the event and it was my introduction to the agency. So I decided to visit their office.

The informal and friendly staff at the agency instantly made me feel comfortable.

“VIRCS was established twenty-three years ago to be a home to the newcomers, providing a safe place for people to come and where their concerns are understood,” commented David Amrik Lau, the Executive Director of the agency, which offers a variety of programs to a diverse community of immigrants who have chosen to settle in the city of Victoria.

David, who has worked as a federal diversity and aboriginal liaison officer, points out that the agency’s “number one goal is to facilitate the settlement and adjustment of newcomers.”

Praising BC government’s momentum and skill, David added “very early in the game they transitioned their knowledge of regional sectoral development needs and paired it with services for newcomers who would best suit regional growth strategies.”

Provincial Allotment Program

A significant number of newcomers immigrate to Canada via a federal program that entitles every province a quota for skilled workers. The provincial nominee program allows provinces to choose immigrants based on shortages in the regional labour market. BC has an allotment of 3,500 nominees each year.

In February Pat Bell, the provincial Jobs, Tourism and Innovation Minister, asked the federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney for an increase in B.C.’s provincial allotment level to 10,000. The federal government is due to announce the new levels for 2013 by the end of this year.

Federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney recently said about 100,000 applications for skilled immigrants are in the system and expected the new immigrant labour pool will be established ahead of schedule.

Canada plans to admit some 53,500 new Canadians in 2013 under the federal skilled workers program, announced the minister. Kenny also said by the end of next year applications will be processed within a year, rather than the average eight years.

“Increasing the BC’s allotment quota will be great for the region, and will help fill skilled labour shortages in BC,” says David adding that “it will also offer a great chance for the newcomers to be Canadians.”

Unfortunately processing an application for landed immigrant status takes years. Settling down can also take a long time. New immigrants come with the hope for a better future for their children. So they often rough it out by accepting jobs that don’t match their qualifications.

One of the programs undertaken by the VIRCS focuses on matching and training skilled immigrants with jobs in their field.

A Success Story

I had the pleasure of meeting Yvonne Zwaag, who made time in the middle of her busy schedule to talk about her experience with VIRCS.

Yvonne had to wait for three years to process her application for landed immigrant status from Amsterdam. After arriving at the Vancouver Island in 2009, Yvonne finally has landed a permanent job with Vancouver Island Health Authority.

Yvonne is very thankful to the VIRCS employment program, which she attended in the spring and got help in the preparation of resume and training for job interviews. During this time she attended an info meeting from VIHA where she got tips and tricks to apply to jobs. VIRCS has regular info meetings with employers for their clients to attend.

“Now I have a permanent job and want to thank my Employment Program of BC (EPBC) counselor at VIRCS Emily Zhong, who invested time with me and gave me individualized attention.”

Visit VIRCS online.

* For a short overview of Chinese immigration to BC between 1858 and 1885 see

This story is from the "On the Brink of Fulfillment" InfoBlock. To read more stories on this topic, click here.