British Columbia

Millions worth of free English classes for Syrian refugees going unused

In Canada there are at least $5 million worth of free hours that are going to waste according to Languages Canada, which represents more than 225 schools offering accredited English and French programs.

Wait lists still long for publicly funded lessons

Languages Canada approached its members last year asking them to donate classes to newly arrived refugees. (Catherine Rolfsen)

With long wait lists for Syrian refugees trying to get into publicly-funded language classes, some schools are questioning why their donated lessons aren't being used. 

Across the country, there are at least $5 million worth of free hours that are going to waste according to Languages Canada, which represents more than 225 schools offering accredited English and French programs. The group put out the call last year asking members to step up.

"Our members have [given] 15 thousand student weeks," Languages Canada executive director Gonzalo Peralta said.

That includes VanWest College, which is offering enough hours for four refugees to learn English for one year. but the school hasn't been contacted by anyone.

"My concern is when I read the news and I see the headlines of the backlog up to 16 months waiting list in B.C. to take ESL lessons and knowing that private schools have probably thousands and thousands of hours available, there's a real disconnect somewhere," VanWest executive director Barbara Elliot said.

Numbers of unused private class weeks in some major cities:

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  • Vancouver — 3,376 
  • Victoria — 510 
  • Halifax — 664
  • Quebec — 3,376
  • Toronto — 4,218
  • Calgary — 896
  • Montreal — 744

Languages Canada says only two seats have been filled in Vancouver, one in Victoria, one in Ottawa and three in Halifax.

Lack of information

It doesn't seem that many groups working with refugees have had much information about the private offers.

"We haven't been approached by any of these schools," Nina Miller with MOSAIC said.

"I heard that the government was working out some kind of arrangement, but as far as I know I have not heard of any individual school approaching us with the offer of classes for Syrian refugees."

The demand for English classes has been way up since the first wave of Syrian refugees started arriving. Languages Canada says it has tried to make the private offers known, but it doesn't seem to be working.

"We received replies of thanks we'll get back to you and we contacted them again two weeks later and we haven't heard anything since.  Do we have to go down and beat down a door? I don't think that's appropriate," Peralta said.

"This is really the first time that Canada encounters a situation such as this one in such volume, so I think we're looking at a situation where we haven't really leveraged what the Canadian public has offered."

Elliott agrees, questioning how much more outreach can be done.

"Speaking as a Canadian, I'm very concerned for their well being and if there's free language lessons, I just can't understand why they're not tapping that resource," Elliot said.

While it seems like a simple communication issue, this is all very frustrating for those involved and next steps still aren't clear. In the meantime, he says, many newly arrived families are caught in the middle.

But the federal government says the problem isn't that simple.

In a statement, a spokespeson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada says it has been working with the provinces, territories and Languages Canada to determine how best to collaborate on the offer. 

"The free language classes offered by Languages Canada are available to Syrian refugees who have been accepted into a college or university program and who are between the ages of 18 and 35 years old. Once the free language training classes are completed, the association plans to charge clients for any additional language training needs," says the statement.

"The majority of the Syrian refugees who have recently arrived in Canada report no English or French ability and therefore don't meet the Language Canada requirement that the students be accepted into a college or university program."

The government says the priority is to place the refugees in training classes that are best suited to their needs and settlement goals.