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Tapping into Potential: Newcomer Youth in the Canadian School System

Tapping into Potential: Newcomer Youth in the Canadian School System

For immigrant and newcomer families, education is often seen as the primary avenue for parents to ensure that their children have a bright and prosperous future in Canada. Although the opportunities that a good education can offer immigrant youth seems boundless, the challenges that young people face when confronted with a new educational environment poses a serious risk to the successful development of newcomer youth. 

For most young people, the process of adapting to a new social environment, coupled with the stress of doing well in their new school, can be a difficult experience that is fraught with anxiety and insecurity (Hsin-Chun Tsai 2006). Often, youth who are inexperienced with English are the most vulnerable to these kinds of social anxieties (Hsin-Chun Tsai 2006, 292). When someone has trouble communicating in the dominant language, the challenge of making friends and succeeding academically is exacerbated, and can lead to youths’ feelings of alienation (Shakya et al. 2010, 71).

In addition to the challenges of integration and adjustment faced by newcomer youth, the experience of immigration is made even more difficult by the common yet false misconception that immigrants are lazy, or unwilling to adapt to Canadian life. While it is true that immigrant youth initially underperform relative to their Canadian-born counterparts, this discrepancy is not due to lack of effort from immigrants, but rather due to the social difficulties associated with starting school in a foreign environment (Statistics Canada 2008). According to research, immigrant youth who are unfamiliar with the dominant language perform worse than Canadian-born students in their first years of school, however this gap shortens the longer they stay in Canada (Statistics Canada 2008). Eventually, immigrant youth actually go on to perform better than their Canadian-born companions given enough time to adjust (Statistics Canada 2008).

Understanding that immigrant youth arrive in Canada facing barriers to the realization of their full potential is the first step to improving the current system of immigrant integration to allow for youths’ natural talents to shine out on their own. However, the challenges of integration faced by newcomer youth are multifaceted, and they deal with not only matters of social and educational wellbeing, but also matters of identity (SPC Ottawa 2012). For example, young people entering a new cultural landscape are faced with the challenge of balancing their parents’ desire for their children to retain the cultural authenticity of the homeland, while also assimilating into the dominant culture in order to create new social bonds (SPC Ottawa 2012, 15). The stress of having to navigate between these two competing pressures can lead to identity crises in youth, and can seriously hinder their ability to adapt into Canadian life.

Despite all the problems that have been identified thus far, there is much reason to be optimistic for the future of immigrant youth in Canada. Efforts by the various levels of government, as well as by the many newcomer settlement and integration agencies all across Canada, have worked to improve the experience of newcomer youth as they work to build a new life in their new home. A gleaming example of this can be found in the work of the Truly Alive Youth and Family Foundation Inc, whose mandate proudly declares that the strength of the nation is in the health of its youth.

Truly Alive Youth and Family Foundation Inc delivers a comprehensive, wide-ranging approach to newcomer youth integration which involves a number of holistic campaigns designed to build skills and improve cultural fluency. For instance, the Foundation endeavours to promote multiculturalism through intergenerational and cross-cultural learning, and works to create stronger ties between youths of Canadian and non-Canadian heritage (“Education and Social Support”). Further, the Foundation works to provide skills training assistance for youths who do not complete high school, and offers opportunities for youths to improve their digital literacy (“Education and Social Support”).

However, the task of ensuring the holistic wellbeing of immigrant youth falls not only on the shoulders of integration agencies, but on each and every Canadian. We must learn to see that newcomer youth are bright, capable, and have tons of unexplored potential! In time, and with the help of a caring and engaged community, we can create a truly inclusive society where those talents are allowed to flourish with unbridled vibrancy.


Fangen, Katrine. “Social exclusion and inclusion of young immigrants: Presentation of an analytical framework.” Young Nordic Journal of Youth Research 18 no. 2 (2010): 133-156. 10.1177/110330881001800202

Hsin-Chun Tsai, Jenny. “Xenophobia, Ethnic Community, and Immigrant Youths’ Friendship Network Formation.” Adolescence 41 no. 162 (2006): 285-298.

Social Planning Council of Ottawa. “Immigrant Children, Youth and Families: A Qualitative Analysis of the Challenges of Integration.” (2012): 1-28. /sites/all/files/pdf/2010/Publications/Immigrant-Family-Report-English.pdf

Shakya, Yogendra, Sepali Guruge, Michaela Hynie, Arzo Akbari, Mohamed Malik, Sheila Htoo, Azza Khogali, Stella Abiyo Mona, Rabea Murtaza, and Sarah Alley. “Aspirations for Higher Education among Newcomer Refugee Youth in Toronto: Expectations, Challenges, and Strategies” Refuge 27 no. 2 (2010): 65-78.

Statistics Canada. “Children of immigrants: how well do they do in school?” December 1, 2008.


Article written by Adrian Aquino | TAYFFI Intern | Political Studies Student, University of Saskatchewan