Immigrating: Settlement Help as Close as Your Neighbourhood Library

by Gilda Spitz

According to the website of the Toronto Public Library, “Every day hundreds of newcomers begin a new life in Canada. Many of them choose Toronto as their destination.”

If you are one of those newcomers, you know how overwhelming it can be to set up your new life here – finding information on jobs, housing, schools, and more. You probably know that various organizations and government agencies provide help to newcomers in these areas. But different agencies provide different types of help – how do you find the particular help you need?

In the past, you had to find the location of those organizations and agencies, visit each individual office, and hope that they are able to provide the specific help you need.

But you now have another option. You can meet with a settlement worker at a very easy-to-reach and casual location – your local public library.

A new way to help newcomers

In October 2006, a new pilot project was started in some locations of the Toronto Public Library system, in conjunction with Citizenship and Immigration Canada and various settlement service providers. Settlement workers are available in six local libraries around Toronto to chat with any newcomer who enters the library.

Newcomers can receive valuable information on a wide variety of topics, including employment, careers, housing, child issues, seniors issues, English as a second language, citizenship and immigration, welfare, and more. If the settlement worker can’t provide the required information right away, he or she can refer the newcomer to an agency that can help.

Each of the six libraries participating in this pilot project is paired with a local settlement agency:

  • Toronto YMCA, located at the Toronto Reference Library;
  • North York Community House, located at the York Woods Library;
  • Catholic Cross Cultural Services, located at the Agincourt Library;
  • Kababayan Community Centre, located at the Parkdale Library;
  • Rexdale Women’s Centre, located at the Albion Library; and
  • Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office provides service at both the Thorncliffe Library and the Flemingdon Library.

The libraries provide the floor space for the settlement desk, and access to their computers, phones, and fax machines. The settlement agencies provide a laptop computer, filing cabinet, desk, and cell phone for the settlement workers.

How does it work?

Parvinder Pabla, a settlement worker in the Albion Public Library, says, “Sometimes people don’t know where to go” to find help. But “many people come to the library to study or to use the computers,” and they discover her services almost by accident.

Many visitors to the library notice her centrally-located desk full of colorful brochures in a wide variety of languages, and strike up a conversation. But if they don’t, she often approaches people who appear to be newcomers, and introduces herself. In a neighbourhood where many people come from India or Pakistan, Ms. Pabla is able to converse with them in three languages – Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi – which is helpful in putting newcomers at ease.

Ms. Pabla answers questions, provides information, and refers newcomers to the Rexdale Women’s Centre if they need additional services that she can’t provide in the library. But she makes it clear that the Women’s Centre isn’t just for women – “we help families as a whole,” she says. Settlement services are provided free of charge to the client.

Even if a newcomer doesn’t need Ms. Pabla’s services at the moment, it’s helpful just to chat, she says. Often that person mentions the settlement service to friends and family who otherwise would not have known about this valuable resource in such a
convenient location.

A win-win situation

Sue Wolfe, head of the Albion Library branch of the Toronto Public Library, points out, “So many agencies have different functions. But here, we pull all the information together in one place, and can make appropriate referrals when necessary.”

A library is an ideal location for this type of settlement service. Newcomers often make the local library their first stop when they arrive, because they need ESL material, material in their own language, and other library services. “Many newcomers come to the library within two days of their arrival in Canada,” she explains.

It’s helpful when the settlement worker speaks one or more of the predominant languages of the neighbourhood, as Ms Pabla does in the Albion area. When a settlement worker speaks a certain language, the word spreads in the community, and many new clients arrive to participate in the program, says Ms. Wolfe.

The project has been very successful in the six months since it began in October, 2006. “This pilot project is a win-win situation,” she says.

According to statistics, most of the people who use the library settlement service have been in Canada less than three years. Women, mostly between 20 to 49 years old, outnumber men by a wide margin. They most frequently need help with employment and career questions, along with questions about life skills, immigration, and many others.

Among the very few minor drawbacks to the program in the library setting is the lack of private space for confidential conversations. However, a private office is sometimes available for personal
conversations, says Ms. Pabla. Otherwise, she provides a referral to her agency, where more counselling and in-depth conversations can take place.

What’s next?

This pilot project currently runs in six libraries throughout Toronto. It is planned to continue until October 2008.

According to Victoria Totten, Spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), “a formal third-party evaluation will be conducted with recommendations made.” The CIC will then “review the recommendations and decide, in conjunction with its partners, which changes to adopt. Once the review is done, we will look at expanding the program.”

For more information, go to the website