Picture this: women, working to get footholds in a new country, are armed with cameras. What will the pictures they take tell them about the journey they’re on? What will they tell the new country about itself?
Choon Lee Chai hopes the photos will fill in details and open up discussion on the programs and services available for immigrant women in a small city in central Alberta. He and his colleagues at Red Deer College and the University of Calgary are using a Community and College Social Innovation Fund grant to find out from immigrant women how those programs meet their needs and where they need improvement.
Part of their research is a technique called “Photovoice.” Fifty women involved in the project — which is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council — will take pictures to illustrate the role of immigrant services in their everyday lives.
Sharing the photos with other immigrants and the researchers will elicit more than simple surveys can to expose what works and what doesn’t among Red Deer’s supports for immigrant women, Chai, the project’s director, explained in an interview.
The photos ground the research in reality and help the women establish what issues matter to them. “So much freedom is possible to explore and express their feelings,” Chai said. “One of its key strengths is what the photo reminds you of, it elicits responses a normal interview would not.”
Immigrant women are an important part of Canada’s economy, making up about 20 per cent of both the country’s total female population and its labour force. But new immigrants have more than double the unemployment rates of those who were born here, even though they are more likely to hold university degrees.
The project’s first year will be spent forming an advisory council of immigrants, representatives of government and non-government agencies and business people. Then about 150 immigrant women will be interviewed about services in Central Alberta (Red Deer and the surrounding communities).
This project follows another, also a partnership between Red Deer College and the Central Alberta Immigrant Women’s Association. It looked at the economic security of immigrant women and found they face many barriers. But follow-up was needed on evaluating services for immigrant women and tailoring them to their needs.
“It’s best they have a role in that follow up,” Chai says. “I really don’t want it to be researchers going into the community and telling them what the problem is. My approach is to say you have ideas, you have talents, let’s work together.”
The photos and stories will be shared in exhibitions and presentations. Focus groups will be held with employers and other stakeholders and CAIWA will work with the women to modify or create new programs.
“Of course there are structural barriers that society as a whole has to address, but I don’t want to overlook the fact immigrant women have a lot of strengths and ideas,” Chai said.