Amid immigration bump, welcome centre struggles to keep up with demand for French courses

As the share of immigrants has bounced back up in Montreal,an organization helping newcomers says it's lacking the resources to fulfil its mandate.

Not enough funding coming from government to help new arrivals integrate into Quebec, says Bienvenue à NDG

Bienvenue à NDG helps immigrants integrate with a range of services, including providing French and English courses. (CBC)

Munia Mohamed's face lights up when she talks about Montreal.

"She's a refugee and she wants to live here because she is comfortable and in security here," said Asma Benaziz, an outreach worker at Bienvenue à NDG, an immigration welcome centre in the city's west end.

Mohamed switches between English and Arabic with Benaziz, who is helping her navigate the system as she's come to sign up for French classes.

Mohamed arrived in Montreal seven months ago, after fleeing Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, for both safety and familial reasons.

She had been studying to become a nurse and hopes to pursue the profession here.
Munia Mohamed, left, who moved from Sudan seven months ago, and Bienvenue à NDG outreach worker Asma Benaziz. (CBC)

But Bienvenue à NDG says it's struggling to keep up with the demand for language classes — especially in French — that will help immigrants like Mohamed contribute to Quebec society by seeking education and employment.

Immigrants in Canada represent the biggest share of the population they've been in nearly a century, according to 2016 census figures released this week, and the centre's executive director Luis Miguel Cristancho says it's lacking the resources to meet that demand.
Bienvenue à NDG executive director Luis Miguel Cristancho says the centre is turning hundreds away from its services because of a lack of resources. (CBC)

Bienvenue à NDG opened in 2009 to organize activities for immigrant families. It has since evolved into a non-profit agency that helps recently arrived immigrants integrate into the community through a range of services, including providing French and English classes.

Cristancho says employees have been working many unpaid hours to meet the high demand.

The funding provided by Quebec's Immigration Ministry and the guidelines for who the agency can serve limit the number of people Bienvenue à NDG is able to help, he said.

Centre forced to turn people away

The ministry guidelines say the integration services Bienvenue à NDG offer should be for newly arrived immigrants or those with permanent residence status.

"We need to have more resources for people who don't have status or people who have been here for more than five years," Cristancho told CBC News Thursday.

As a result, he said the organization had to turn away more than 100 people who wanted to take French classes last year.

Bienvenue à NDG serves up to 900 people a year, but it only gets enough funding to help about half that number, he added.

"We try our best," he said.

Language classes crucial to integration

Bienvenue à NDG's services are crucial, Cristancho says, because many immigrants who don't know how to speak French end up in the west end of the city, where more people speak English.

Families that aren't as fluent in French often begin their lives in Canada in NDG, but once they have a grasp of what they need to know to get around around, they are eager to learn Quebec's official language, he said.

He said Bienvenue à NDG is committed to help them do that, but it needs the resources.

These are the countries of origin making up the biggest portions of recent immigrants to the city. (CBC News Graphics and Roberto Rocha)

Data provided in the 2016 census figures released this week show the top countries of origin of immigrants settling in the neighbourhood are Iran and China.

They also make up a big share of those coming to the centre, said Cristancho.

Striking a balance

Jack Jedwab, president of the Association for Canadian Studies, Canadian Institute for Identities and Migration, said the rise in immigration is good news for Canada, which has a greater need for caregivers, including nurses, to support its aging population.

In an interview with CBC's Radio Noon, Jedwab said Canada has been undergoing a "demographic revolution" in the past few decades.

"Quebec is challenged by striking a balance between attracting skilled workers and getting people that are French-speaking," Jedwab said.

"Not all of the pool is necessarily going to meet that criteria in a way that meets for as easy as possible adaptation for labour market."

with files from CBC's Sudha Krishnan and Radio Noon