McMaster University's Master of Science in Global Health student Aru Sharma is currently working on two articles for publication after recently defending her thesis, an ambitious research project that has resulted in the first known comprehensive review of social services for newcomers to Canada.
“Deciding to study this topic was a personal journey,” says Sharma, whose family moved to Canada from India when she was 3 years old. “In my parents’ experience, social services were mired with complicated bureaucratic processes affecting awareness and accessibility. I was surprised to learn that in the 20 years since, not much has changed,” she explains.
Sharma’s research involved a systematic review examining literature on social services for newcomers, spanning a period of 20 years, and was driven by a key question: What social services are available for newcomers to Canada and how are they provided, managed, evaluated and funded?
She notes that, while there are numerous issues around the provision of social services for this population, the biggest barrier to conducting research in this area is the lack of available literature. “In looking for literature published between 1995 and 2015, I only found 20 articles that met my inclusion criteria, with the earliest publication year of 2002,” says Sharma.
Despite the gaps in the literature, she was able to identify two main themes that guided how she addressed her research question: language as an essential building block for integration, and the structure of the provision of social services, which is a complex and multi-level system.
Sharma’s findings highlighted several challenges facing newcomers to Canada, the most important of which is accessibility:
• Physical (or Geographical) accessibility, meaning how accessible a service is based on its location.
• Linguistic accessibility, which is about the individual newcomer’s ability to speak an official language, and a service provider’s ability to accommodate newcomers who do not.
• Informational accessibility, which is about whether information on services is available to newcomers.
• Eligibility-based accessibility, which can pose a significant barrier to accessing services, especially given that requirements can vary from one organization to another.
“As a child, I didn’t experience the struggle my parents did,” explains Sharma. “But as an adult, I understand what it must have been like, so it is important to me that my research not only provide new insights on an increasingly relevant topic, but also reflect what I value,” she explains.
“My hope was to gain a deep understanding about the system, as it currently exists, to identify potential problem areas, and set the stage for future research,” says Sharma.