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'There is something systemically wrong': Neethan Shan eager to help immigrants tackle barriers

The councillor said he'll use his own experiences in his position as newcomer advocate to help people facing issues like unemployment and low wages.

Neethan Shan, councillor for Ward 42, was elected in a byelection in February.

Eduardo Lima / Metro

Neethan Shan, councillor for Ward 42, was elected in a byelection in February.

As he steps into his role as Toronto’s designated newcomer advocate, Coun. Neethan Shan hopes his own experience as a refugee will let him hit the ground running.

Shan’s appointment as welcomer-in-chief was confirmed at a recent Toronto City Council meeting, with the Ward 42 Scarborough-Rouge River representative taking over from Coun. Joe Mihevc. Shan will also remain the city’s Youth Advocate.

“I came to Canada, aged 16, from the civil war in Sri Lanka, so I can bring lived experience and professional experience together,” he said Tuesday. “As someone who arrived as a refugee, to be able to help others who might be going through similar challenges is very humbling.”

With a background in teaching, youth outreach and immigrant advocacy, Shan says he will work with the Toronto Newcomer Office and other groups to try to improve access to services and opportunity for immigrants.

The Tamil-Canadian said he’s motivated by issues such as barriers to employment, with immigrants struggling to put hard-earned skills to use in their adopted country.

“Research after research shows it takes longer for immigrants to find long-term, quality employment,” Shan said. “There is something systemically wrong.”

The latest census figures show that 46.1 per cent of Torontonians were born outside the country, with the city welcoming more than 350,000 people since 2011. Many, though, are toiling.

According to Statistics Canada data for 2014, immigrants who had arrived since 2009 under the skilled work Canadian Experience Class category made an annual median salary of $50,000. The median for all immigrants, however, was just $24,000.

“When people get their employment, they feel a sense of belonging,” Shan said. “I’ll get to push that at city council, to be able to ask questions on their behalf on a regular basis.”

In addition to employment, Shan said it's important to provide an inclusive range of services for youth.

“My ward, Ward 42, has over 90 per cent racialized communities,” Shan said. “One of the highest concentrations of young people in Canada is in Malvern. How diverse is our arts programming, our recreational programming?

“Sometimes a certain portion of an immigrant population can create the impression that an entire population is succeeding,” he added. “But peoples’ individual struggles are harder to notice.”

For example, this week advocates pushed Ottawa to abolish the excessive demand clause, which can see new immigrants locked out of the permanent-residency system for medical reasons.

Shan said he hopes to give such voices a platform.

“Even though the federal government deals with immigration, the city government is closest to the people,” he said. “We have a huge responsibility to advocate on their behalf.”

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