Public Policy Issues

Policies Affecting Immigrant Fathers

This article, which examines policies which affect the circumstances of fathers who are immigrants, is a chapter in FIRA's Inventory of Policies and Policy Areas Affecting Father Involvement.


An area of increasing interest among researchers and policy makers in recent years is the changing role of fathers and the explicit desire to support father involvement as a way to enhance children's health and well-being. Although scholarly interest in fatherhood emerged in the early 1970s and 80s, the bulk of studies and policy work on fatherhood is very recent - much of it dating from the mid-1990s onwards.

This article is a chapter in the recently released Inventory of Policies and Policy Areas Influencing Father Involvement which is a collaborative document which has benefited from the ideas and suggestions of others. It is supported by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC - CURA). For a full copy of this document click on Inventoryof Policies and Policy Areas Affecting Father Involvement on the left hand side of this page.


Specific Issues and Policies

Immigration has long played a critically important role in this country. Canada’s official adoption of multiculturalism policy in 1971 and ongoing commitment to building a vibrant, diverse and inclusive society is often viewed as a model for other countries. A broad framework of laws and policies at the federal and provincial/territorial levels and various programs and ethnocultural services are in place to help new Canadians adjust to their new homeland and become full participants in Canadian society (Canadian Heritage).

According to the 2001 census, 18.4% of Canadians were born in other countries, and current targets call for welcoming 200,000 - 250,000 persons annually. The rationale for maintaining high levels of immigration is often described as both demographic (to counter population aging and a continuing low fertility rate) and economic (to expand the supply of skilled labour); but also reflects humanitarian interests to provide a safe haven for refugees, facilitate family unification, and broaden and enrich Canadian society.

The experiences of individuals and families who immigrate to Canada are diverse as well. The experience of any individual or family is, in part, influenced by their status upon immigration (as an economic immigrant, family member or refugee); their skills and language capabilities; their culture, religion, and values; experiences in their former country and in the process of moving to Canada; the nature and extent of social support available to them upon arrival and afterwards, and the degree of difficulty they may experience finding suitable employment and settling themselves and their children in new surroundings and a new community. The goals of policy makers and service providers include facilitating newcomers’ adjustment and integration, especially in the initial period, and addressing barriers and difficulties that individuals and families experience.

There is clear evidence; however, that recent immigrants as a group (generally those who have arrived in the last 10 years), have faced some particular challenges. Recent immigrants have higher rates of unemployment and underemployment than earlier cohorts, despite their higher levels of education and qualifications (Omidvar & Richmond, 2003; Palameta, 2004; Statistics Canada, 2004). As an example, in one recent study by Statistics Canada, 70% of immigrants who settled in 2000-2001 had trouble entering the workforce and six in ten eventually took jobs outside their area of training (Statistics Canada, 2005). Moreover, recent immigrant families have been identified as one of several groups most likely to have experienced low income, and persistent low income throughout the late 1990s (Campaign 2000; Palameta, 2004). Higher rates of unemployment and low earnings are more common among recent immigrants who are visible minorities, suggesting that racial discrimination may be compounding the difficulties new immigrants may experience (Omidvar & Richmond, 2003; Palameta, 2004). Fathers who experience problems integrating into the Canadian labour market and who have limited language skills face further difficulties in becoming comfortable and settled in their new environment — difficulties that can compromise fathers’ capacities to provide for their families, resulting in working long hours for limited pay, added stress in family relationships, and less time to spend with their children. The economic challenges many immigrant fathers experience are relevant to the sections of this inventory that address low-income fathers (see Section D) and work and family policies (see Section C).

The process of adjusting to a new country and culture can be very challenging. Settling (and resettling) involves finding a job, housing, and information and services, as well as finding one’s way around a community, obtaining culturally preferred foods, registering children in school, and adapting to a very different climate. Compared to their experiences in their home country, some parents are faced with constructing and adapting more egalitarian gender roles and to parenting alone without substantial support from other family members, friends and neighbours. Acculturation, which includes processes of reconciling challenges and changes to values, expectations, and norms as well as behaviour, is a complex and multifaceted process that occurs over a longer term. Change may occur more quickly in some domains (i.e., behaviour) than others, and typically occurs more rapidly among children and youth (Jain & Belsky, 1997). Current models stress the selective and multidimensional nature of acculturation, with trade-offs between the old and new culture and continual modification and reshaping of attitudes and behaviours based on the demands and pressures that are part of each person’s experience (Hondagneu-Sotelo, 1994; Hynie, 1996).

Significance and Potential Influence on Fathers

Specific research on the views and experiences of fathers in immigrant families is limited. Interviews with immigrant fathers from China, Latin America, the former Yugoslavia and South Asia conducted by David Este and his colleagues demonstrates the common themes fathers speak of when they were asked to describe their beliefs, values and expectations for their children and their thoughts about the role of fathers. These have been included in a recent training manual for human service workers who may offer programs for immigrant fathers.

The joy, pride, and deep love of their children were foremost in the interviews. The desire to protect their children, provide guidance and support, and help their children become successful Canadians was a second prominent theme. Balancing the desire to respect and preserve their own heritage, while fostering the success of their children in Canada was also articulated … And, lastly, the father’s role in discipline -- in ensuring that their children grow up knowing right from wrong, and being respectful, moral individuals, was a common theme that emerged. (Shimoni, Clarke & Este, 2000)

Understanding fathers’ views, concerns and experiences is particularly important for those who wish to successfully engage immigrant fathers in community programs (See Section F).

Other studies are consistent in pointing out the following as matters that strongly influence fathers and fathering behaviour: lack of suitable employment; changes in familial and generational boundaries; lessening of parental authority; a fear of losing their children to the new culture; and lack of support.

$ Lack of suitable employment, low income and discrimination can affect fathers’ competence as providers and their pride as the presumed head of the family. Low-wage jobs with few benefits, evening or shift work and/or multiple jobs create additional challenges -- although evening or shift work may sometimes allow fathers to spend more time with younger children.
$ Acculturation and adjustment with respect to values about fathers’ and mothers’ roles in the family is a prominent issue. Pressure to adapt more egalitarian gender norms can be hastened and made more stressful by the economic imperatives many immigrant families face. Resistance to more egalitarian relationships may be particularly pronounced among immigrants from countries/cultures that favour men’s dominance or embody a collectivist approach (Hynie, 1996; Kulig, 1998). Fathers may feel isolated and depressed if they perceive themselves to be failing in the role of provider and resentful of their wives’ growing independence.
$ In addition to adjusting to significant change (or reversal) in gender roles, many immigrant fathers may also experience role reversal in the parent-child relationship. Most fathers describe their role as including guiding their children, being a role model, and promoting values of respect for the family, for elders and for cultural/religious traditions. A focus on moral development for many parents includes expectations that their children will be obedient and respectful and avoid behaving in a way that could bring shame to the family. Fathers typically articulate a strong desire for their children to be successful in school and to be economically secure as adults. Role reversal occurs particularly when children and youth become more fluent in English (or French) than their parents, who then rely on the child to translate for them and to take on intermediary role functions they would not normally perform. Friction in parent-child relationships occurs most often around issues related to adolescents’ desire for more autonomy and independence, and parental concerns about maintaining respect for cultural traditions and religious values. A particular concern for many parents relates to adolescent daughters’ dating and possible sexual activity. Thus, while parents want their children to be happy, successful in school, and to fit in and be accepted in Canadian culture, they also are concerned about the maintenance of important values. Some compromises are inevitable on both parts. Rigidity in the enforcement of rules and restrictions on the part of parents is likely to be met with some resistance, and in extreme situations can result in alienation, violence, and/or youth running away from home. (Merali & Violate, 2002; Shimoni, Este & Clark, 2003).
$ Fathers (and mothers) in several studies have commented on the fact that they miss the support they had from extended family members and neighbours in raising their children compared to being very much on their own in Canada. Newcomers are unlikely to feel comfortable approaching or speaking with family counsellors, school personnel or other professionals. Barriers to accessing services include language difficulties, the fact that many immigrants may not believe that professionals can help them, and fear that they will be judged harshly or misunderstood (Shimoni, Este & Clark, 2003; Maiter, Trocmé & George, 2004). Culturally- sensitive, inclusive programs and services that are strengthsbased, include an outreach component, are designed to include fathers, and provide opportunities for parents to participate in informal networks are more likely to be successful in supporting newcomers and their children and reducing the isolation they might otherwise feel (See Section F).

Gaps, Critical Questions and Concerns

Fathers who are new immigrants and/or refugees face multiple, often inter-related stresses that can adversely affect their physical and mental health and the quality of family relationships. Their commitment to their children and the importance they attach to family life are important motivators and strengths that can be built on. A number of critical policy issues and service gaps have been identified. Among them are the following:
$ Addressing the various factors that limit immigrants’ and refugees’ successful integration into the Canadian labour force - including providing additional opportunities for language learning, skill development, and other employment-related supports.
$ Funding Arrangements: Traditionally the federal government has assumed the major policy making role with respect to immigration and resettlement, although Québec has negotiated its own autonomy in this area. The federal government provides funding to the provinces (who, in turn, provide it to cities) in recognition of the additional expenses incurred to support immigration and settlement services. Most policy researchers believe that there is insufficient funding provided to cities for these purposes and that settlement services have been in a precarious state due to funding cutbacks and imposed restructuring. The effect has been overloaded service demand, and a tendency for smaller “ethno-specific” agencies to be very vulnerable to decreased funding (Omidvar & Richmond, 2003).
$ Increased access to Strengths-based Community Supports, especially for fathers: As described by Shimoni et al, many current programs have limited funding and mandates. As well, they may not orient to the needs of fathers or involve them in a meaningful and positive way. Opportunities to support fathers, e.g., through parenting programs that are culturally appropriate, strengths-based, and that help build informal networks may not be available (Shimoni, Este & Clark, 2003) or accessible. As well, it is important to extend supports beyond initial periods of resettlement, and to consider supports for fathers that extend beyond the time when children are young. Evidence suggests that conflicts may be particularly pronounced for immigrant families when their children are adolescents. Additional services and supports for immigrant fathers and for youth in newcomer families would be appropriate and helpful.

Key References

Alboim, N. and the Maytree Foundation. (2002). Fulfilling the promise: Integrating immigrant skills into the Canadian economy. Available at the Caledon Institute of Social Policy Web site:
Campaign 2000. (2004). One million too many: Implementing solutions to child poverty in Canada. 2004 report card on child poverty in Canada. Retrieved April 10, 2006, from
Canadian Heritage. (n.d.). Canadian diversity: Respecting our differences. Retrieved April 10, 2006, from
Citizens for Public Justice. (no date). Refugees in limbo: Lives on hold. Pamphlet produced by the Public Justice Resource Centre. Retrieved March 28, 2006, from the Maytree Foundation Website:
Dryburgh, H. & Hamel, J. (2004). Immigrants in demand: Staying or leaving? Canadian Social Trends. (Autumn 2004 issue), 12-17.
Gopaul-McNicol, S.A. (1995). Examining psychotherapeutic and psychosocial factors in working with immigrant families. Journal of Social Distress and the Homeless, 4, 143-155.
Government of Canada. (2005). Backgrounder: Foreign Credential Recognition. Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. Available at
Hondagneu-Sotelo, P. & Messner, M.A. (1994). Gender displays and men’s power: The “new man” and the Mexican immigrant man. In H. Brod & M. Kaufman (eds.), Theorizing masculinities (pp 200-218). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Hynie, M. (1996). “From conflict to compromise: Immigrant families and the processes of acculturation.” In D. M. Taylor (Ed.). Diversity with Justice and Harmony: A Social Psychological Analysis. Prepared for Strategic Policy, Planning and Research and Metropolis project. Retrieved March 28, 2006, from
Jain, A. & Belsky, J. (1997). “Fathering and acculturation: Immigrant Indian families with young children.” Journal of Marriage and the Family, 59 (4), 873-883.
Kulig, J. (1998). Family life among El Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Nicaraguans: A comparative study. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 29 (3), 469-479.
Maiter, S., Trocmé, N. & George, U. (2004). “Building bridges: The collaborative development of culturally appropriate definitions of child abuse and neglect for the South Asian community.” Retrieved March 28, 2006, from
Merali, N. & Violate, C. (2002). Relationship between demographic variables and immigrant parents’ perceptions of assimilative adolescent behaviours. Journal of International Migration and Integration. 3, 1, 65-81.
Omidvar, R. & Richmond, T. (2003). Immigrant settlement and social inclusion in Canada. A working paper in the Laidlaw Foundation’s working paper series on social inclusion. Retrieved March 28, 2006 from
Palameta, B. (2004). “Low income among immigrants and visible minorities.” Perspectives on Labour and Income, (Statistics Canada, Catalogue no. 75-001-XPE). (April, 2004): 12-17.
Rotter, J.C. & Hawley, L.D. (1998). Therapeutic approaches with immigrant families. The Family Journal: Counselling and Therapy for Couples and Families. 6 (3), 219-222.
Shimoni, R., Clark, D. & Este, D. (2000). Supporting immigrant and refugee fathers: A training manual for human service workers. Calgary: Calgary Immigrant Aid Society.
Shimoni, R, Este, D. & Clark, D. (2003). Paternal engagement in immigrant and refugee families. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 34 (4), 555-568.
Statistics Canada. (2004). The Canadian labour market at a glance, Section N: Immigrants (Catalogue no. 71-222-XIE). Ottawa, ON: Ministry of Labour. Available at
Statistics Canada. (2005). Longitudinal survey of immigrants to Canada: Progress and challenges of new immigrants in the workforce 2003. Available at
Suarez-Orozco, C., Todorova, I.L. & Louie, J. (2002). Making up for lost time: The experience of separation and reunification among immigrant families. Family Process, 41(4), 625-643.
Worswick, C. (1996). Immigrant families in the Canadian labour market. Canadian Public Policy, 22(4), 378-396.