Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) has been awarded a prestigious federal grant to lead a multi-institutional, interdisciplinary research initiative to expand knowledge about migrant integration during a time of rapid technological, social and economic transformation.
The “Migrant Integration in the Mid-21st Century: Bridging Divides” research program will be supported for seven years by a $98.6-million grant from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF). These grants are designed to help Canadian post-secondary institutions build on their key strengths to deliver research leading to important social and economic benefits for Canadians.
“The CFREF award puts TMU in a very important position with respect to one of the most significant initiatives in recent Canadian history and one that is critical for the country’s future,” says Steven N. Liss, TMU vice-president, research and innovation, and chair of the Institutional Board for Bridging Divides. “For Canada to be prosperous and sustain its quality of life, we need to grow our population by attracting migrants and integrating them successfully into a dynamic economy.”
This largest single research grant ever received by TMU is a recognition of the university’s years of national and international leadership in immigration and settlement studies, including its Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration (CERC Migration), says Dr. Liss.
“We are also drawing on our significant depth of expertise and capacity in research areas with impact on migrant integration,” he adds. “These areas include the future of work, technology adoption, community health, democratic participation and creating smart, resilient cities.”
The program brings in three other Canadian academic partners: Concordia University in Montreal, the University of Alberta and the University of British Columbia. In addition, it will include 25 research leaders and more than 100 scholars, involve more than 200 organizations and offer 1,500 training opportunities.
The goal: creating thriving and inclusive communities
Canada has a long history of welcoming people from abroad but faces new challenges shared by other nations. In an era of intensifying global competition for people, the Canadian government has plans to significantly ramp up its immigration levels in the coming years.
Meanwhile, disruptions from socio-economic change and innovative technologies may pose challenges for new Canadians, including access to health care and finding affordable housing and employment.
“Our goal is to create the evidence to support community dialogues and policy decisions that will help Canada create thriving and inclusive communities as we bring in more migrants,” Dr. Liss says. “Through this research, we will investigate ways to reduce barriers to economic and social inclusion for migrants.”
Steven N. Liss
"For Canada to be prosperous and sustain its quality of life, we need to grow our population by attracting migrants and integrating them successfully into a dynamic economy.
Toronto Metropolitan University Vice-President, Research and Innovation
Centring technology in the research investigations
“We have a totally innovative element in this research initiative,” says Anna Triandafyllidou, CERC Migration and scientific director of Bridging Divides. “We are looking at how technology changes the way we live, work and participate, and where those changes intersect with migrants and their integration.”
Technological advances can be very positive and create opportunities, but they can also be disruptive and create new challenges for migrants, notes Dr. Triandafyllidou. “Applying the technology lens to migration and settlement can improve economic and social outcomes for immigrants and all Canadians.”
The researchers will be collaborating with technology companies and associations, labour organizations, settlement agencies and others to help guide their investigations, she adds. “Our recipe for success is that we will be working with these partners from day one to define our research questions.”
The Bridging Divides team will focus on four research streams: Immigrant Health and Well-Being, Employment and Lifelong Learning, Place and Infrastructure, and Citizenship and Participation.
Dr. Triandafyllidou cites a couple of examples where technology has the potential to lower societal and economic barriers for migrants. One concern is delays in the recognition of foreign educational and professional credentials, which prevent new Canadians from working in their fields.
“We can look at finding solutions through interactive digitalized processes that would help translate credential recognition into labour market uptake. Augmented reality tools, for instance, may allow some professionals to complete retraining and accreditation procedures from their country of origin instead of in Canada,” she says.
“And working with our colleagues in engineering, we are looking at how to use big data analysis to project what is needed in terms of housing, transportation, public and green spaces to build resilient cities, including smaller and mid-sized communities.”
"Applying the technology lens to migration and settlement can improve economic and social outcomes for immigrants and all Canadians.
CERC Migration and Scientific Director of the Bridging Divides program
Using technology to support social good
Ebrahim Bagheri, a computer scientist in TMU’s Faculty of Engineering and Architectural Science, is the Bridging Divides scientific co-director and the Canada Research Chair in Social Information Retrieval.
For this research initiative, he will lead research on the mutual interplay between important issues in immigration and migrant integration and advancement of digital technologies, including online social networks, search engines and other types of artificial intelligence (AI) methods.
“One of the areas that may significantly impact migrant populations is misinformation,” he says. Misinformation is now increasingly fuelled by advanced digital technologies. “Statistics Canada reported that during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, 96 per cent of Canadians who used the internet to find health-related information may have encountered information that was false, misleading or inaccurate.
“Research has already shown that immigrant populations, who are more likely to be from under-represented minority groups, have a higher likelihood of being targeted by misinformation,” he explains. “Whether economic or health-related, this translates into unfavourable consequences for immigrants; hence significantly impacting and challenging their integration into the target society.”
Beyond misinformation, the Bridging Divides research program will also explore how advanced digital technologies can exhibit prejudice and exacerbate bias towards immigrants. “Artificial intelligence methods trained on biased historical data continue to reflect this discrimination today,” says Dr. Bagheri. This raises important questions, such as whether and under what governance structures should governments adopt AI-based methods in immigration processes and what safeguards can be put in place so that historical biases are not reinforced.
“We are excited for this research program to enable technology to help our immigrant communities flourish rather than allowing technology development to happen in a vacuum without serious concern for the well-being of society,” he says. “We will advocate for and advance a human-centred philosophy in the development of advanced digital technologies – for the good of society, and for every individual.”
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