CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1 Since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011, almost 5.6 million people have been forced to flee their country (UNHCR, 2020). Many neighbouring states have seen vast numbers of asylum seekers arrive at their borders. Canada contributed to the international effort by resettling more than 44,000 Syrian refugees between 2015 and 2019, including more than 9,000 in Quebec (Government of Canada, 2019). The resettlement operation involved arranging their transportation to Canada and giving them permanent resident status upon arrival. [1] It also involved sponsoring refugees for one year through a unique programme established in the 1970s (Hyndman et al., 2016). In 2016, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) invited countries to emulate the Canadian model, and since then some twenty countries have responded by exploring ways to implement such a programme (Bond and Kwadrans, 2019).

2 The Canadian programme consists of two main types of sponsorship, each following a different procedure. In the first case, the government provides selection criteria to UNHCR, which then identifies the refugees to be sponsored. In relation to Syrians, Canada has favoured the most vulnerable individuals who pose little danger to the country’s security, including women at risk, entire families, and LGBTQ+ individuals (Government of Canada, 2015). Upon arrival, government-assisted refugees (GARs) are provided with immediate essential resettlement services as well as financial support over a twelve-month period. These services are delivered by government-designated non-profit organisations. In the second category, which represents the unique aspect of the Canadian model, the refugees are privately sponsored (PSRs). Either a group of individuals or a non-profit organisation that has signed a sponsorship agreement acts as guarantor. Groups of individuals must be composed of citizens or permanent residents aged eighteen and over and, in Quebec, must number between two and five, while in the rest of Canada there must be five or more members. The private sponsors can choose which refugees to sponsor, provided they are not inadmissible to Canada (Government of Canada, 2020). Financial support and immediate essential resettlement services are provided by the private sponsor. It is only as of the second year, at the end of the sponsorship period, that these refugees are eligible for government social assistance benefits. The private sponsor must therefore demonstrate to the government that it has the financial capacity to fulfil its obligations.

3 While PSRs join their sponsors in their place of residence, GARs are resettled in cities designated by the state. This is one of the measures that the government put in place in an effort to regionalise immigration. [2] In the 1990s, on the basis that too many immigrants were settling in large metropolitan areas, while several regions were experiencing a sharp demographic decline, the Canadian and Quebec governments developed policies and practices for allocating — some say “dispersing” — refugees, as in Australia and New Zealand (Akbari and MacDonald, 2014), as well as France, as documented in this special issue. With respect to Syrian refugees, the Quebec government designated thirteen host cities: the metropolis of Montreal, two medium-sized cities (Quebec City and Laval), and ten smaller cities. Fewer than 5% of privately sponsored Syrian refugees were resettled outside of the three largest cities in Quebec, while this percentage climbs to 45% in the case of GARs. [3]

4 In this article, we document the resettlement of refugees outside of large metropolitan areas by studying the case of Syrians in Gatineau, one of the smaller cities designated for this purpose. Our aim is to shed light on the role of its unique territorial context in the resettlement experiences of refugees in relation to French language learning and employment integration. Gatineau is located immediately next to Ottawa, a medium-sized city in the predominantly English-speaking province of Ontario, which is also the national capital of Canada. Given the specific selection and support procedures that apply to each type of sponsorship, we examine the extent to which Gatineau’s size, its particular context and its community have shaped the trajectories of the two types of refugees in different ways. We adopt a theoretical framework based on resilience and use a mixed methodological approach combining a survey of Syrian refugee families resettled in Gatineau since 2015 and semi-structured interviews with resettlement actors and the families themselves.

Literature Review

5 The focus on gateway cities (Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver) in the literature on newcomer settlement experiences in Canada is explained by the fact that the majority chooses to settle there, but obscures the reality that GARs are frequently resettled in smaller cities. The findings of such research do not always apply to smaller cities and regions with low migrant density (Vatz Laaroussi and Walton-Roberts, 2005). The local and regional contexts in which refugees resettle ought to not be overlooked (Hyndman et al., 2016).

6 We consider a city to be medium-sized if it has between 500,000 and 1 million inhabitants, and small if it has fewer than 500,000 (Krahn et al., 2005; Williams et al., 2015). In comparison to larger urban centres, small and medium-sized cities usually have fewer resources and less infrastructure to receive and support refugees (IRCC, 2019). With the presence of smaller ethnic communities, new arrivals cannot expect as much support. On the other hand, settlement services in larger centres may be more saturated by newcomer demand (Ley and Hiebert, 2001; Wilkinson and Garcea, 2017), especially in the case of mass arrivals. Smaller communities may also demonstrate more sustained and welcoming engagement (Kyriakides et al., 2018) and be more creative and effective in providing settlement services (Bonifacio and Drolet, 2017). The employment prospects in small and medium-sized cities are also different, since the primary and secondary sectors often have a more prominent role. Furthermore, the economic vitality that is sometimes lacking in small cities may mean that employment opportunities for newcomers are scarce (Fang et al., 2018). All of these differences shape the resettlement experiences of refugees outside large cities and may not have the same impacts on GARs and PSRs given differences in the selection process and forms of support.

7 A few recent studies on Syrian refugees shed some light on this issue since they examined cities of different sizes in Alberta and distinguished between the experiences of GARs and PSRs. With respect to the use of available settlement services, Drolet and Moorthi (2018) note that refugees residing in smaller cities (Red Deer and Lethbridge), and even in cities with populations of less than 100,000 (Medicine Hat), appear to have established closer links with settlement agencies. They also note that PSRs residing in larger centres (Calgary, a large city, and Edmonton, a medium-sized city) relied more on their sponsors. Agrawal and Zeitouny’s (2017) findings also indicate that refugees residing in the smaller of the two cities studied in Alberta, Lethbridge as compared to Calgary, were more satisfied with the settlement services they received. They attribute this result in part to the fact that settlement agencies in Lethbridge were more flexible and creative in meeting their needs, while those in Calgary were overwhelmed to a greater extent by Syrian arrivals; nevertheless, faith-based and community organisations tried to fill the gaps in services in Calgary.

8 Both of these studies indicate that GARs had greater recourse to settlement services than PSRs, a finding echoed by IRCC (2019) for Canada as a whole, which may be explained in part by the greater needs of GARs due to their profile on arrival. According to Agrawal and Zeitouny (2017), PSRs had more difficulty accessing childcare, health services, local transport and language training as they were not assisted by professionals. A second reason could be that PSRs were mostly resettled in large centres where settlement agencies did not seem to be up to the task. A third reason may be that PSRs were not aware of the existence of certain social services and programmes, since sponsorship groups formed in a spirit of generosity were not always sufficiently equipped (Agrawal and Zeitouny, 2017; Blain et al., 2020; Esses et al., 2020).

9 None of these studies appear to show differences in employment between refugees in large and small cities. There is evidence, however, that PSRs entered the labour market more quickly in the first few months after arrival and were more likely than GARs to be employed thereafter (Agrawal and Zeitouny, 2017; Hynie et al., 2019; IRCC, 2019). These results are not surprising insofar as PSRs have higher levels of education and proficiency in Canada’s official languages. Others argue that PSRs have access to a social network through their sponsor that supports their integration. However, Hynie et al. (2019) found that a small proportion of PSRs used their sponsor to find work, yet they confirmed the role of social networks in securing employment. As ethno-cultural communities are more developed in larger cities, it may be easier to find a job there. GARs also report having fewer opportunities to interact with Canadian-born individuals, which hinders their learning of official languages and their understanding of Canadian society (Agrawal and Zeitouny, 2017).

10 This literature review shows that some of the differences between larger and smaller cities have indeed translated into different experiences for Syrian refugees. We contribute by documenting the implementation of the Canadian refugee sponsorship programme in the unique territorial context of Gatineau, a small francophone city located near a medium-sized anglophone city (Ottawa). We focus on refugees’ experiences in relation to learning the French language and employment and examine how this local context may have shaped the trajectories of GARs and PSRs differently given their distinct selection process and forms of support.

A Resilience Perspective

11 To understand the role of the local context in the resettlement trajectories of refugee families, we use the concept of resilience. Several studies in the field of migration have mobilised this concept in recent years, especially in the English-speaking world. [4] We have drawn on this work to construct our theoretical framework, specifically the frameworks proposed by Vatz Laaroussi (2009) and Pickren (2014); the former highlights the role of territory in immigrant resilience and the latter focuses on refugee resilience.

12 There are many definitions of resilience (Tisseron, 2017). The one we use refers to the ability to recover from disruption and cope with adversity. Refugees experience dual disruption: the first relates to the situation from which they are fleeing, and the second to their uprooting and ‘landing’ in a new country where everything has to be rebuilt. Adversity consists of all the obstacles they will have to overcome to reconstruct their lives (Vatz Laaroussi, 2009). The obstacles that stand in the way of their resettlement involve difficulties arising from a lack of proficiency in the language of the new society, a lack of knowledge of its culture and of how its housing and labour markets operate, and the non-recognition of foreign credentials and professional experience. The number and extent of the barriers to be overcome depend in part on the context of resettlement (Dagdeviren et al., 2016). A vibrant local economy may offer more employment opportunities and therefore reduce some of the barriers to labour market integration. A context where the language of communication is French may be perceived as more hostile to refugees who are more exposed to English in their country of origin.

13 Resilience is a capacity that helps refugees and their families to avoid collapsing in the face of overwhelming odds and to move forward to surmount them. It depends both on their internal resources and on the external resources on which they can rely in their new society. Examples of inner resources are self-esteem, motivation, optimism, adaptability, knowledge and skills, pride in identity, cultural and spiritual beliefs, values and practices (Pickren, 2014; Akbar and Preston, 2019). External resources are primarily human (Vatz Laaroussi, 2009), including, in particular, professionals working in the field of resettlement, ethno-cultural and spiritual communities, volunteers, sponsors and the general population. A society with experienced and caring professionals, supportive sponsors, and proactive ethno-cultural and spiritual communities will make families feel welcome and valued, thereby promoting resilience. External resources also include the services offered, namely resettlement services, and social policies (Thomas, 2013; Murray et al., 2000) from which refugees can benefit. According to Vatz Laaroussi (2009: 229, translated from French): “If, through policies, programmes and various activities, immigrant family members are made to feel recognised and valued, then this territory opens the doors to resilience, which in turn promotes inclusion and integration.” This is where the type of sponsorship comes into play, since it determines access to human resources as well as to services and policies. Thus, resilience is not fixed in time and space, but can be driven, supported and strengthened by human resources, services and social policies that will be accessible to a greater or lesser extent depending on a number of factors, including the type of sponsorship.

Gatineau: A Source of Obstacles and Resources

14 In 2016, Gatineau had a population of 276,245, making it a small city despite its status as the fourth largest city in Quebec. 12.25% of its population were of immigrant origin, and among them, 22.25% were recent immigrants (Statistics Canada, 2019b). Before the arrival of Syrian refugees, the population of Syrian origin was under 200, [5] but the Arab Muslim community was sufficiently large to have two mosques. A distinctive feature of the City of Gatineau is its geographic location on the border of Ontario and the City of Ottawa, the nation’s capital, which is located just across the Ottawa River. Together, Gatineau and Ottawa form Canada’s National Capital Region. In addition to the fact that Ottawa’s population is three times larger (934,243), a higher proportion of the population is of immigrant origin (23.17%), among whom 13.89% were newcomers. Indeed, Ottawa also received over 2,000 Syrian refugees during this period (Government of Canada, 2019). Finally, this neighbouring city has an Arab-speaking community that is five times larger than that of Gatineau (Statistics Canada, 2019b).

Map 1: The Ottawa-Gatineau region

Figure 0

Map 1: The Ottawa-Gatineau region

Source: Veronis (2014: 258).

15 The economic structure of the National Capital Region is shaped by the presence of the federal public service, which accounts for almost 25% of all employment. Jobs in the manufacturing sector are less common (8%) and those in the primary sector are almost non-existent (0.2%). As a result of this distinctive economic structure, many jobs require a high level of education and strong language skills, making them less than ideal for refugees with low levels of education and who speak other languages. Unemployment rates in Gatineau and Ottawa are below the Canadian and Quebec averages (Statistics Canada, 2019c). Gatineau has a close economic relationship with Ottawa. Almost 40% of its residents cross the river to work in Ontario (Andrew et al., 2014). The population of Gatineau, although living in a small city, therefore has access to an employment pool equivalent to that of a medium-sized city. But to access jobs on the Ontario side, and sometimes even on the Quebec side, it is necessary to speak English, the language that largely dominates the workplace. Many jobs also require bilingual skills. Thus, Gatineau’s economic vitality may alleviate some of the barriers to entering the labour market. Likewise, the proximity of Ottawa may make it easier for those proficient in English to obtain employment, but the prevalence of English may accentuate the challenges for others.

16 Despite the fluid cross-border dynamics of the region, access to many public services is dictated by place of residence. This is specifically the case for newcomers to Gatineau who are only eligible for settlement services provided on the Quebec side (Veronis, 2013), despite the fact that Ottawa has much more developed reception and support infrastructure. The organisation Accueil-Parrainage Outaouais (APO) is at the centre of the support infrastructure for refugees in Gatineau. APO welcomes GARs and provides them with immediate resettlement services as outlined in the “Programme d’accompagnement et de soutien à l’intégration” (Accompaniment and Integration Support Programme) set up by the Ministère de l’Immigration, de la Francisation et de l’Intégration (Ministry of Immigration, Francisation and Integration - MIFI) of Québec. Once immediate needs have been met, school-age children are enrolled in school and adults are referred to French language courses and settlement programmes offered by other more specialised actors. The MIFI’s French language courses, more commonly known as francisation[6] courses, entitle students to financial compensation and are taught in partnership with educational institutions in the region. With regard to employment, the agency responsible, Emploi-Québec, provides services to newcomers through local employment centres, under agreements with MIFI. It refers those who wish to enter the labour market to organisations that can help them. These organisations, mandated by the MIFI, offer workshops, training and specialised support. It should be noted that these settlement services are also available to PSRs.


17 To understand how the context of Gatineau has shaped the resettlement experiences of PSRs and GARs, we draw on data collected as part of a research project whose objectives include gaining an understanding of how the local context has contributed to shaping refugee resilience. One of the drivers for this research was a call from members of civil society in Gatineau for an assessment to be carried out.

18 It is a collaborative research project, with an advisory committee guiding all stages. Representatives of the main sectors of service provision, a private sponsor and two Syrian migrants — one woman and one man — are members of the committee. We used a mixed methodological approach with the aim of building a portrait of the families’ resettlement and gaining a deeper understanding of their experiences and the role played by the local context. We used quantitative and qualitative techniques in a complementary fashion, giving them equal emphasis. More specifically, we used a sequential and inductive design by first conducting a survey of refugee families using a standardised questionnaire and then semi-structured interviews with stakeholders and the families themselves.

19 To construct the questionnaire, we drew on the Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants to Canada conducted by Statistics Canada in the early 2000s. Our goal was to increase the validity and reliability of our survey by using questions and wording that had already been tested with newcomers. Some questions were adapted to the Syrian context and sensibilities. Others were added to address issues which are specific to this population, and several were not included. Our questionnaire covered a number of areas: health, housing, francisation, schooling, employment, financial situation, socialisation, sense of belonging and resettlement plan. There were eighty-three questions relating to family and 118 questions of an individual nature. [7] In order to reduce collection and data entry errors, the questionnaire was built in LimeSurvey software and tested with several immigrant families.

20 To recruit participants, APO sent each of the families settled in Gatineau a letter describing the project and inviting them to contact our research team. At the same time, we called on volunteers who were very involved with the Syrian community to compile a list of refugee families resettled in the region. This enabled us to compile a nearly exhaustive list of seventy-nine families. It transpired that two families had left the region and two others could not be reached. Of the remaining seventy-five families, only seven did not agree to participate. The participation rate in the study was therefore 91%. The survey was conducted between March and June 2019.

21 As many of the Syrian refugees are illiterate in Arabic and do not speak French, the electronic questionnaire was administered orally to the participants in Arabic. In total, the questionnaire took between one and two hours to complete depending on the size of the family and the circumstances of its members. In the summer of 2019, we analysed the survey results and determined that further investigation was needed on the support provided by both types of sponsorship, francisation and employment integration.

22 Then, during fall 2019, we held thirteen semi-structured interviews with stakeholders from various sectors of service provision in order to elucidate the survey results and to better understand their own experiences with the resettlement of Syrian refugee families. These interviews were conducted by one of the authors. The interview guide was adapted to the participants’ sector and included about twenty questions divided into three sections: their preparation for the arrival of Syrian refugees, their experiences with refugees in their respective sector, and their views on the coordination of services offered by different stakeholders. Questions were also asked to clarify some of the survey results. The interviews lasted between sixty and eighty minutes, were recorded and transcribed verbatim. For the purposes of this article, each of the transcripts was analysed for content in relation to the general themes of sponsorship, francisation and employment.

23 Following analysis of these interviews, we began the third stage of data collection in January 2020, which consisted of interviews with ten refugee families in order to enhance our understanding of their resettlement experiences and to clarify the results of the survey and the semi-structured interviews with stakeholders. Based on the survey results, we made a selection of families that would cover all possible configurations in terms of sponsorship type, participation in francisation, and employment outcomes. Where possible, we met separately with the adult women and men in each family to gain their respective perspectives. The interviews were conducted by one of the authors accompanied by an interpreter and took place in Arabic, English and French according to the participants’ proficiency. The interview guide covered the following main themes: general description of the resettlement experience, sponsorship, francisation, employment and intra-family dynamics. It included between twenty and thirty questions depending on the family context.

24 Research with refugees poses specific ethical challenges that we took into account. Given their dependence on sponsors and service providers, they may feel pressured to participate in studies conducted in partnership with these actors or to give certain answers (Clark-Kazak, 2018). To minimise the risk, participants were informed of their right to not participate and to withdraw from the study at any time, that their participation was anonymous, that their responses were confidential within the research team, and that the research team did not include partners. The consent form was written in Arabic and presented to them orally. In the case of PSRs, no information was collected that would formally identify sponsors.

Mobilisation and Reception of Syrian Refugees in Gatineau

25 While the Syrian refugee crisis was making headlines in fall 2015, several sectors of the Gatineau community mobilised to welcome families and facilitate their resettlement. A reception committee was created, headed by APO and bringing together all the main actors involved in the resettlement of newcomers. The City of Gatineau played a liaison and support role with the organisations designated by the MIFI. It also took charge of communications to ensure that information provided was consistent, in particular by producing an informative “Question and Answer” style document that was made available online and used to answer citizens’ questions. In collaboration with a charitable organisation, Centraide Outaouais, it also sought to channel the energy and enthusiasm of the many citizens who wanted to help by organising a collection of in-kind donations over a two-day period that received a strong response from Gatineau residents. The items collected were then used to furnish the accommodation of government-sponsored families beyond the minimum supplies provided. Centraide Outaouais also created a website to collect financial donations from the public.

26 At the same time, citizens’ groups started sponsoring families, while churches and the Centre islamique de l'Outaouais (Outaouais Islamic Centre – CIO) called on their congregations to contribute to this collective effort. Several citizens’ groups went through APO, as it has a sponsorship agreement, so that its annual quota (ten family units), authorised by the MIFI, was quickly reached:


Lots of groups of citizens from here wanted to take responsibility for a Syrian family. [...] Many [Syrian families] arrived during the period through private sponsorship, they continue to arrive to this day. […] Our private sponsorship project was already in place, except that we used to receive no more than five or six applications a year.” (Stakeholder 2, translated from French)

28 Religious institutions also sponsored several families. By the end of 2017, Gatineau had received 439 Syrian refugees, of whom 161 were privately sponsored (Government of Canada, 2019). Like all small cities designated by the Quebec state, Gatineau received more GARs than PSRs.

29 Many volunteers became involved in supporting Syrian refugees in a variety of ways. A support group called Chelsea for Refugees, which is still active, offered furniture and other items to a large number of government-sponsored families to provide additional furnishings for their accommodation. This group also provided winter clothing, toys and school supplies for children, and general advice. Since prior to 2018 APO did not have a volunteer programme as such, and given that its staff were assigned to other tasks, volunteers were responsible for coordinating the influx of volunteers, which at that time numbered in the hundreds. Several of them, mainly retirees, decided to come together to set up the Comité de soutien auprès des réfugiés syriens (Syrian Refugee Support Committee), a very active citizen initiative that offered various services to a large number of families, including preparation of accommodation, accompaniment to appointments, language interpretation, support in learning French for parents and help with homework for children. The committee also organised educational and cultural outings and group visits, and distributed second-hand, reconditioned toys, bicycles, tablets and computers, as well as French-Arabic alphabet primers to families. Its activities were mainly focused on GAR families:


Families supported by the state [are] therefore totally dependent on government services and programmes. But, the government has, let’s say, a certain inherent rigidity and limits in terms of capacity to intervene on the front line with these populations.” (Stakeholder 12, translated from French)

31 Over time, the committee became increasingly involved in home support for francisation, as it observed the difficulties families were facing:


We quickly realised that the adults had difficulty passing the tests in the francisation programme. Some of them had problems keeping up. Some told us that they found French very difficult. Several were discouraged.” (Stakeholder 12, translated from French)

33 The team of volunteers dedicated to francisation support included more than twenty people and worked with nearly forty families, generally over a period of three to nine months. Since no other organisation in Gatineau offered home francisation support services, it played a decisive role. In addition, the committee made various presentations to local elected officials and at events about issues related to the reception and integration of Syrian refugees in Gatineau. It was this committee also that approached one of the authors of the article requesting an assessment of the Syrian refugee resettlement experience.

34 Among other civil society initiatives, members of the CIO mobilised strongly in response to a call by their centre to help refugee resettlement efforts. They made contact with almost all Muslim families and organised weekly dinners in the initial stages to welcome them and follow up on their needs:


In the early days, we received them every Friday. We would go and pick them up from their homes, and then we would bring them in on Fridays, to get together: ‘You, what do you need? You, what do you need?’ We tried to gauge what each family needed.” (Stakeholder 10)

36 Members of the CIO also provided food and clothing to several families, acted as volunteer interpreters, supported them to find accommodation and referred them to the appropriate settlement services according to their needs. In addition, in the summer of 2017, they set up a free francisation summer camp that welcomed nearly sixty refugee children. As with the Syrian refugee support committee, members of the mosque mainly accompanied GARs because their needs were greater:


Most of them were government-sponsored refugees. That didn’t prevent other families coming, because they were friends with each other. So, they could come together. But basically, those who are [privately] sponsored are well supported. They have their group of sponsors, [...] so there were more government-sponsored refugees there and the CIO gave them quite a lot of support.” (Stakeholder 10)

38 Finally, they regularly contributed to the activities organised by the Syrian Refugee Support Committee, by providing volunteer interpreters and support persons. Several members of the city’s Christian churches also worked hard to support fundraising efforts, prepare accommodation, and transport families to their many appointments. The community organisation Les Grands Frères et Grandes Sœurs de l’Outaouais (Big Brothers and Sisters of the Outaouais) also opened the doors of its warehouse to many GAR families so that they could acquire additional furniture. Other citizen solidarity initiatives included collections of items by seventeen schools, the initiative “un bonnet pour la paix” (“Hat for Peace”), which involved knitting and providing hats to families, and public awareness activities organised by the Université du Québec en Outaouais.

39 It is therefore evident that civil society attempted to address the shortcomings of the existing support services in the region, particularly for GARs. It actively sought to help them to overcome various obstacles to acquiring French language skills and thereby contributed to building their resilience.

Profile of Families

40 Based on the survey results, we prepared a profile of Syrian refugees upon their arrival in Gatineau, with the aim of highlighting the pre-existing differences between GARs and PSRs that were likely to influence their support needs and the obstacles they would encounter in relation to francisation and employment. Our sample consisted of twenty-eight privately sponsored households and forty government-sponsored households (Table 1). The GAR families are larger in size, have a slightly higher proportion of women and minors, and are slightly younger than their privately sponsored counterparts.

Table 1: Socio-demographic characteristics of Syrian refugee households on arrival in Gatineau, based on type of sponsorship

Figure 1

Table 1: Socio-demographic characteristics of Syrian refugee households on arrival in Gatineau, based on type of sponsorship

Source: All tables and graphs in the article are based on the survey conducted in this study.

41 Figure 1 shows the number of years of education completed by Syrian refugees prior to arrival. Their level of education was low, with almost two-thirds having spent under nine years in school. In addition, the level of education of GARs was significantly lower. It should be noted that women had a slightly higher level of education than men in the privately sponsored group, while they had a significantly lower level than men in the government-sponsored group.

Figure 1: Distribution (%) of number of years of education received by adult Syrian refugees at the time of arrival in Gatineau, according to type of sponsorship and gender

Figure 2

Figure 1: Distribution (%) of number of years of education received by adult Syrian refugees at the time of arrival in Gatineau, according to type of sponsorship and gender

42 Many of them had working knowledge of English, but very few had any knowledge of French, as shown in Table 2. In addition, GARs had weaker language skills in English and French. With regard to each of Canada’s official languages, the gap between the two refugee groups was primarily due to the significant gap between women. In line with data on years of education, PSR women were more comfortable in both official languages than men, while for GARs the situation was the reverse.

Table 2: Knowledge of official languages spoken in Canada among adult Syrian refugees on arrival in Gatineau (%), according to type of sponsorship

Figure 3

Table 2: Knowledge of official languages spoken in Canada among adult Syrian refugees on arrival in Gatineau (%), according to type of sponsorship

43 The profile of PSRs and GARs on arrival, therefore, differed in several respects. These differences are mainly due to the distinct selection criteria, as discussed above. As such, they should normally result in greater difficulties for government-sponsored families in terms of acquiring French language skills and entering the labour market, especially for women.

Role of Sponsorship

44 The resilience of refugees heavily depends on the external resources upon which they can draw to overcome obstacles. With this in mind, we will first examine how sponsorship affected access to human resources, services and public programmes. Figure 2 shows frequency of contact with sponsors or APO staff, as applicable.

Figure 2: Distribution (%) of contact frequency of Syrian refugee households in Gatineau, according to sponsorship period and type

Figure 4

Figure 2: Distribution (%) of contact frequency of Syrian refugee households in Gatineau, according to sponsorship period and type

45 Contact frequency decreased over time for both PSRs and GARs, which is to be expected as refugees gained more autonomy. However, in the case of GARs the initial low level of exchange is striking. Indeed, the distribution of contact frequency for government-sponsored households in the first month (fourth column of Figure 2) is similar to that of privately sponsored households in the last eight months (third column of Figure 2). This uneven intensity of contact according to type of sponsorship inevitably has an impact on the support families received, as can be seen in Table 3. The percentage of privately sponsored households who report receiving general advice is almost double that of GAR households. A substantial difference is also evident in relation to emotional support, employment assistance and childcare. The low levels of support APO provided in these areas is not surprising, since its role is limited to referring those in need to appropriate services; but it is still remarkable that so many privately sponsored families were supported through their sponsorship in these areas. Finally, it should be noted that there is no significant difference in the francisation support provided. Thus, our findings diverge from those of Agrawal and Zeitouny (2017) who found that PSRs had more difficulty accessing day-care for their children, local transport and language training because they were not accompanied by professionals.

Table 3: Assistance provided to Syrian refugee households in Gatineau (%), according to type of sponsorship

Figure 5

Table 3: Assistance provided to Syrian refugee households in Gatineau (%), according to type of sponsorship

46 When families were asked about challenges that they had experienced in the course of their sponsorship (Table 4), far fewer GAR families reported the absence of problems. Support itself was the most problematic, followed by communication issues. One refugee described some of the difficulties he encountered with APO as follows:


Because at that time I didn’t speak French or English and sometimes there was no one who spoke Arabic in APO except X. And maybe X had gone out. When I went to ask Y for a document to be translated, he didn’t understand what I wanted. I think APO should have had several Arabic speakers.” (Man 1; translated from Arabic)

Table 4: Problems encountered by Syrian refugee households in Gatineau (%), according to type of sponsorship

Figure 6

Table 4: Problems encountered by Syrian refugee households in Gatineau (%), according to type of sponsorship

48 This negative perception could be explained by the significant needs and high expectations of GARs and by the fact that there was not always a support worker who spoke Arabic on site. However, APO’s mandate as stated by MIFI was not allowing it to do more, as shown by the following statement:


In some cases, expectations are much higher among refugees than the services we provide. [...] Secondly, expectations in terms of communication, yes, we can come across a situation where [there] is no one who speaks Arabic [and someone] comes seeking a service [...] Because you know, in some ways we are a small organisation. [...] But you know how much the government pays us for interpretation services for a new family? It pays us for seven hours of interpretation for reception and settlement in Outaouais. You know, for all the services we have to provide, there will be [an] interpreter, but for the rest, for the rest, we cannot guarantee anything.” (Stakeholder 2, translated from French)

50 In contrast to the findings of Drolet and Moorthi (2018) and Agrawal and Zeitouny (2017), GARs in Gatineau do not appear to have developed close links with settlement agencies. Thus, in terms of settlement services, smaller cities may lack the flexibility and creativity needed to compensate for their less well-developed infrastructure compared to larger cities.

Findings on Francisation and Employment

51 In this final section, we seek to understand how the context of Gatineau shaped the resilience of refugees in relation to acquiring French language skills and integrating the labour market, taking into consideration the more significant obstacles GARs faced and their lower level of sponsorship support. Table 5 shows that the vast majority of refugees are taking or have already taken francisation courses. The proportion of men in both groups is comparable, but GAR women are slightly less likely to participate in francisation training than their PSR counterparts. Many women referred to a lack of motivation and time constraints. In addition, half of GAR women reported that they did not have access to childcare. Since GAR women have more children than their PSR counterparts and their children are younger on average, it is understandable that they were less likely to take francisation courses, especially since they received less help with childcare than PSR families. Moreover, the educational institutions that offered full-time language courses did not provide on-site childcare and required refugee women to be away from home for the entire day. It was this last factor that emerged most strongly as a challenge in the semi-structured interviews with families:


School lasted too long. It put me under a lot of pressure, because sometimes the children came home from school before me. [...] So it put me under a lot of pressure because I wanted to be at home to receive them when they arrived.” (Woman 24, translated from Arabic)

53 Milkie et al. (2020) made similar points about the pressure and constraints relating to the family responsibilities of Syrian refugee women and the lack of a network to support them. Several men also complained about the long duration of the courses, as it prevented them from working in the afternoon. Many of them, particularly those with lower levels of education, found that they could not concentrate in the afternoon. In addition, they would have liked the courses to be less “academic” and to offer more opportunities to practice real-life situations in order to become familiar with the Quebec accent and expressions. Others thought that the composition of classes was too heterogeneous:


Most of my colleagues in the class spoke English and because they knew English, it was easier for them than for me. Because I didn’t even understand English, I didn’t understand anything, I missed all the information.” (Woman 45, translated from Arabic)

Figure 7

55 Motivation may have been higher and time constraints less acute if the courses had been held over half days, had been more practice-oriented and had been aimed at more homogeneous groups of learners (see Rahemtulla et al., 2017). Yet, since Gatineau is a small city, it may not have had the flexibility to offer courses in different formats:


I am not sure we could bring together a large enough group of students of the same level who would want to take a part-time course. [...] We already have full-time classes with three levels. It would be difficult to ensure homogeneity in part-time classes.” (Stakeholder 3, translated from French)

57 The size of Gatineau may have exacerbated barriers to learning French, especially for GARs. Nevertheless, the Syrian Refugee Support Committee sought to mitigate barriers for GARs by offering francisation classes at home. Lastly, for some refugees the strong presence of English in the region reduced the value of learning French:


Families that come here and not to Ottawa are very worried, because they associate English with success, because all over the world, successful people speak English. ‘French? Why am I going to speak French?’ They were all trying to get to Ottawa. They didn’t want to go to [francisation] school.” (Stakeholder 8, translated from English)


Now, I am studying English I want to finish English, then I will study French.” (Woman 31, translated from English)

60 We now turn to the issue of employment. Table 6 shows that significantly more working-age PSRs, both men and women, looked for work after their arrival compared to GARs. We checked that this was not due to a higher proportion of GARs than PSRs taking language training at the time of the survey. The lack of job-seeking activities among GAR women is largely due to the number of children they have, as one woman put it: “I don’t want to find a job, I have too many children!” (Woman 17, translated from Arabic). Another reason is that French skills among GARs are lower, which makes it difficult for them to enter the labour market, as underlined by one of the men interviewed: “I can’t work yet, because I don’t speak French yet” (Man 12, translated from Arabic). Since education is a determining factor for employment, independently of its impact on French learning, we categorised the refugees according to whether they had fewer than nine years of education or nine years or more when they arrived in Canada. When education is taken into account, we find that the low job search rate among GARs results mostly from the less educated GARs. Only 12% of those with less than nine years of education attempted to find a job compared to 53% of those with nine years or more, a percentage that is very similar to that of more educated PSRs. The difference between less educated and more educated PSRs is small. Therefore, the type of sponsorship does not appear to have an influence on taking steps to find a job for those with more education, but it does for those with a lower level of education.

Table 6: Employment-related steps and situations of Syrian refugees in Gatineau (%), according to type of sponsorship and level of education

Figure 8

Table 6: Employment-related steps and situations of Syrian refugees in Gatineau (%), according to type of sponsorship and level of education

61 In relation to steps taken to find a job, we note that a higher proportion of PSRs than GARs report getting help through sponsorship. PSRs were also more likely to have taken most of the other steps listed to find a job. The most successful approach for those with less education was, in the case of PSRs, to get help through the sponsors and their network, and in the case of GARs, to approach employers directly, while for those with more education in both groups it was to mobilise their social network. In contrast to the findings of Hynie et al. (2019), many of the PSRs with less education used their sponsors to obtain a job and considered this step to be the most beneficial; but in line with Hynie et al. (2019), social networks seem to play a determining role for individuals with higher education in terms of obtaining work. One reason for this could be that the social networks of those with higher education include more people who are active in the labour market.

62 The majority of individuals who took steps to enter the labour market did not encounter any problems, but 44% of those with lower levels of education stated that they faced obstacles. Language was the most frequently mentioned barrier, across all categories. GARs with a lower level of education also mentioned a lack of available jobs in their field of activity, a lack of experience in Canada and a lack of knowledge about the process for seeking a job. Less educated individuals have work experience in fields that are not well represented in Gatineau, such as agriculture, or that do not recognise their skills, such as construction, as illustrated by the following comments:


Mostly farmers or in construction, lots of plasterers [...], but as their skills are not recognised here, they are offered training as plasterers, but they don’t want it.” (Stakeholder 4, translated from French)

64 In Ottawa, it is not necessary to have training in order to work in construction, but it is necessary to speak English. As for agricultural work, this implies leaving the city and experiencing cultural isolation, as illustrated by this quote: “I much prefer to have people with me because once I finish work, I want to sit with them, not sit alone without contact” (Man 12, translated from French). Yet, among individuals who took steps to find a job, most of them were successful. There is, however, a significant gap between the less educated GARs and the other groups. The same is true in relation to the employment rate. It should also be noted that a significant proportion of refugees work in Ottawa, with the exception of the less educated GARs for whom the English language barrier may have been more of an issue.

65 These findings suggest that private sponsorship does not appear to make much difference to those with more education, as both GARs and PSRs with higher levels of education integrate the labour market equally well. This is not the case, however, for those with lower levels of education. PSRs with limited education, supported by their sponsors, integrate employment almost as well as their more educated compatriots. On the other hand, GARs with lower levels of education have a much harder time. They are less likely to seek employment, face more obstacles when they do so, and ultimately are less likely to be employed and less likely to take advantage of the labour pool in Ottawa. It appears, then, that in a setting like Gatineau, private sponsors seem to significantly strengthen the resilience of less educated refugees in relation to employment.


66 Our study showed that GARs and PSRs had distinct profiles upon arrival in Gatineau. The former had larger families, with more minors, lower levels of education and less knowledge of Canada’s official languages. The barriers that GARs had to overcome in order to resettle were therefore greater, especially for women. However, it appears that the support that GARs received through their sponsorship was much less sustained than that PSRs received. The latter enjoyed much more frequent contact with their sponsors and more support in various areas. One reason for this difference is the limited mandate of the agency designated to support GARs. Another reason seems to be that resettlement services in Gatineau, a small city, do not have the flexibility and creativity encountered in other small cities, nor the scale of those in medium and large cities. Nevertheless, civil society has undeniably tried to remedy the inadequacies of support services offered in the region, either by providing services directly or by calling on decision-makers to improve service provision. In addition, many citizen initiatives successfully reached a very large number of GARs. It would be worth exploring further whether similar initiatives in larger cities had the same impact on families, or whether the small-city context helped.

67 In relation to the francisation experience, the type of sponsorship does not appear to have played a significant role. It should be noted, however, that the lack of childcare services may have limited the participation of GAR women in language training, as they had more children and could not rely directly on sponsors. In addition, the size of the city of Gatineau may not have provided the flexibility needed to offer language training that was more tailored to the needs of Syrian refugees. Again, a citizen initiative attempted to compensate for the shortcomings by offering French language support at home, which mainly benefited GARs. Yet the omnipresence of English in the region seems to have reduced the usefulness of learning French for some refugees. On the one hand, the presence of English hindered the learning of French, but on the other, it allowed refugees to bypass the French language barrier.

68 In terms of employment integration, our study reveals that private sponsorship made a greater contribution to strengthening the resilience of refugees, especially those with less education. We found that PSRs with lower levels of education, supported by their sponsors, were almost as successful in integrating the labour market as their more educated compatriots. But GARs with lower levels of education have a much more difficult employment trajectory. They are less likely to take steps to find a job, face more obstacles when they do so, and ultimately are less likely to be employed and to take advantage of the large pool of jobs available in Ottawa. Among these barriers, many less educated GARs could not practice their trade in Gatineau, either because the field of employment was not available or because their skills were not recognised. Nevertheless, more of the lower-educated PSRs overcame these barriers, probably with the help of their sponsors. Lastly, lower-educated GARs could not count on the support of a large ethnocultural community in Gatineau or on citizen initiatives like those aimed at providing immediate resettlement and francisation services, probably because it is much more difficult to intervene in this area, especially when most of the citizens involved are retirees.

69 While Gatineau’s context is unique, it is worth investigating whether smaller cities offer a more favourable context for PSRs or GARs, as compared to larger urban centres. Our study suggests that they appear to be more conducive to supporting or to fostering the resilience of PSRs. Further research is needed to better understand how city-size impacts the type of care provided to refugees. In particular, we recommend carrying out comparative studies between medium and small cities across the province of Quebec.

This study was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada through the Partnership “Building Migrant Resilience in Cities”. We thank all the members of the research team and the advisory committee as well as all the participants. We are also grateful to the editors of this special themed issue for their support and to the reviewers for their helpful comments which contributed to the revision of the text.


  • [1]
    Permanent resident status provides authorisation to live, work and study in Canada and to access most of the benefits available to Canadian citizens. After three years permanent residents can apply for citizenship by naturalisation.
  • [2]
    For other measures, see Hanley (2017).
  • [3]
    Authors’ calculations based on Government of Canada (2019) data as of 30 November 2019.
  • [4]
    For a review of the English and French literature, see Akbar and Preston (2019) and Goudet (2019) respectively.
  • [5]
    Authors’ calculations based on figures provided by Statistics Canada (2019a) and MIDI (2017).
  • [6]
    This is the term used in Quebec to mean “frenchifying”, designating the expansion of French language use through adoption by additional social groups.
  • [7]
    Not all questions were asked, since many were conditional on previous answers.

Expériences de réinstallation des réfugiés syriens à Gatineau au Québec

Quebec has resettled a large number of Syrian refugees since 2015 through state and private sponsorship, two types of refugee sponsorship that provide distinct forms of support. While privately sponsored refugees join their sponsor where they reside, those who are government sponsored are generally resettled outside of large urban centres under a policy of regionalisation of immigration. We examine the case of a small city, Gatineau, in order to highlight the role of the local context in the resettlement experiences of government- and private- sponsored refugees in relation to language learning and job integration.

  • Canada
  • Quebec
  • Syria
  • refugee
  • resettlement
  • sponsorship
  • small city

Le Québec a accueilli un nombre important de réfugiés syriens depuis 2015. Ces derniers ont été réinstallés grâce au parrainage de l’État et du secteur privé, deux types de parrainage comportant des modes d’accompagnement qui leur sont propres. Alors que les réfugiés parrainés par le secteur privé rejoignent leur parrain là où ils résident, ceux parrainés par l’État sont largement réinstallés hors des grands centres en vertu d’une politique de régionalisation de l’immigration. Nous étudions le cas d’une ville de taille petite, Gatineau, en mettant en lumière le rôle du contexte local dans les expériences d’établissement des réfugiés parrainés par l’État et le secteur privé en lien avec l’apprentissage de la langue et l’intégration en emploi.

  • réinstallation
  • réfugié
  • parrainage
  • petite ville
  • Syrie
  • Québec
  • Canada

Experiencias de reasentamiento de refugiados sirios en Gatineau, Quebec

Quebec ha acogido a un número significativo de refugiados sirios desde 2015. Han sido reasentados mediante el patrocinio del sector estatal y privado, dos tipos de patrocinio con sus propios modos de apoyo. Mientras que los refugiados patrocinados de manera privada se unen a su patrocinador donde residen, los patrocinados por el estado son reasentados en gran parte de los principales centros bajo una política de regionalización de la inmigración. Estudiamos el caso de una pequeña, Gatineau, destacando el papel del contexto local en las experiencias de asentamiento de refugiados patrocinados por el estado y el sector privado en relación con el aprendizaje de idiomas e integración en el empleo.

  • Canadá
  • Quebec
  • Siria
  • refugiado
  • reasentamiento
  • patrocinio
  • ciudad pequeña
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Anyck Dauphin
PhD Economics, Professor, Department of Social Sciences, Université du Québec en Outaouais, 283 Alexandre-Taché Boulevard, Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, J8X 3X7;
Luisa Veronis
PhD Geography, Associate Professor, Department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics, University of Ottawa, 60 rue Université (Room 017), Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, ON K1N 6N5;
Translated by
Katherine Booth
Translated by
Alexandra Poméon O’Neill
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
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