Benjamin Aduba is a restructuring consultant at Bromwich+Smith, a licensed insolvency trustee.
In 2015, I arrived in Canada from Nigeria with my wife and newborn daughter in tow. With 10 years’ experience as an investment banker, securities and bond trader and portfolio manager, I felt quietly confident about my financial knowledge and how to apply it in Canada. While I wasn’t familiar with the concept of using a credit card for recurring purchases, I had an overall sense of self-reliance as I settled into my new home.
But not all newcomers are as fortunate. Despite immigrants coming to Canada being more highly educated and skilled than ever before, many leave their countries and can be immediately beset with challenges. There are cultural and linguistic barriers that persist. Meanwhile, navigating Canada’s financial, legal and tax systems is a complex matter. Additionally, the majority of newcomers settle in urban centres with ever-increasing housing and living costs, often leading to greater financial hardship.
The financial services sector varies dramatically across the world. Credit scores are handled differently from country to country, with many having no credit score system at all. Some new Canadians come from countries where it’s a crime to leave debts unpaid, causing worry they will go to jail. Instead of seeking help earlier, they suffer in silence. When they speak with me in my role as a restructuring consultant, they do so from a place of fear. For others, the perceived stigma from being unable to repay their debts can be mentally overwhelming, causing them to make desperate financial decisions that could lead them further into debt.
I also find that when new immigrants experience an unexpected life event, such as job loss, a downturn in health or death of a loved one, they struggle more with debt because of poor financial knowledge and management. When the rudiments of financial literacy are missing, it’s frighteningly easy for people to fall quickly into debt.
This year, Canada launched its boldest immigration plan to date – one that is set to welcome more than 1.2 million immigrants over the next three years. The Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship tabled the 2021-23 Immigration Levels Plan, which “sets out a path for responsible increases to immigration targets to help the Canadian economy recover from COVID-19, drive future growth and create jobs for middle-class Canadians.”
Yet, while immigration is a pillar to the country’s short-term economic recovery and long-term prosperity, more can be done by government, leaders and employers to challenge money misconceptions – especially during COVID-19. Canada is an ever-growing cultural mosaic – the number of ethnic groups in the country surpassed 250, according to the 2016 census. But this tapestry of worlds is being affected differently during the pandemic. We are all in the same storm, but adrift in our own ships.
The OECD argues that, on a global scale, the COVID-19 crisis is likely to have a disproportionate impact on immigrants and their children. This impact is across several domains including health, jobs and education. Meanwhile, Canada’s own research finds a similar trend. Two in five Canadians believe newcomers have lost ground in the past six months, according to Bromwich+Smith’s recent COVID economy poll of 1,510 Canadians.
We have already encountered many newcomers in our offices who are grappling more than ever with debt while trying to understand the Canadian system. On this matter, more will be revealed as fuller effects of the pandemic unfold over the coming months.
Additionally, female immigrants are even more adversely affected. Researchers at Carleton University conducted an in-depth study of 50 high-skilled immigrant women in summer 2020, asking about their employment experiences during the pandemic. Forty-one out of 50 were negatively affected, causing downward career mobility and a waste of talent. Some who had recently arrived in Canada had their career start delayed or job offers revoked, while others faced challenges shifting to online work environments. Those who retained their jobs struggled with increased family demands and limited, remote social supports.
The value of financial education for newcomers cannot be underestimated. When I arrived, I received a lot of support on writing a résumé, finding a job and securing a place to live, but there was not as much information available on credit, budgeting or financial planning. Raising awareness about credit education and resources to a diverse group of Canadians is critical. Organizations in partnership with provincial and municipal governments and financial institutions can take the lead in running programs that educate new immigrants on debt and credit. Incorporating financial education as early as elementary school is also paramount.
Beyond this, at the highest level, governments must invest more in supporting and expanding financial programs. There needs to be greater awareness and more resources to create strength and confidence in our society and its economy.
For some cultures, it is a taboo to talk about money. So, tailoring financial programs to meet the needs of newcomers in culturally appropriate ways is essential in order for Canada and its tapestry of cultures to thrive economically.
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