The federal immigration department’s claim that higher-level English classes are "under-utilized" in Brandon is being disputed by the local organizations that serve newcomers.
Jeff Traeger, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 832, says the majority of their members currently enrolled in their English classes are at Canadian Language Benchmark Level 4 or higher.
Meanwhile, Assiniboine Community College’s English as a Second Language programming is in high demand — and the proof is in the numbers.
Updated figures from the college show the number of student registrations in the ESL program is now 503. That number has grown from 442 in 2015-16. Back in 2012-13, the number of registrants was 309.
ACC offers only the higher-level English classes, levels 5-8.
As it stands now with the proposed funding cuts, ACC president Mark Frison explains the college will only be able to take 100 students next year — one-fifth of the current number of students.
ACC’s ESL programming began in 2008, funded by the federal government but funnelled through the province. In 2013, the federal government assumed full responsibility for the program. Under the proposed cuts, ACC will go from $730,000 in funding to $190,000.
"I’m certainly hoping that folks will better understand the impact," Frison said. "We’ll obviously have wait lists that will develop in the beginning, and hopefully that will impact their thinking about whether they should provide more resources … That’s certainly our focus, to make sure that they do understand that impact and as we go into next year, that we keep a good log of what that student demand would be."
A spokesperson with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada stated that there have been fewer recent arrivals accessing settlement services in Brandon over the last few years, which has resulted in "under-utilized capacity in higher level language classes, while pressures for basic settlement services and lower level language classes have increased.
"In these situations, the department must make decisions to ensure federal funding is being used where it is needed the most," stated IRCC spokesperson Lisa Filipps in a response to a recent Brandon Sun article on the topic of funding being slashed to the English classes offered through UFCW.
"The IRCC settlement program’s priority is to assist newcomers early upon their arrival in Canada."
Filipps went on to say the UFCW funding will not be cut significantly.
"Negotiations are still ongoing, but we can say that (UFCW) is retaining97 per cent of the funding they received in the last fiscal year."
The department was not willing to clarify what this means specifically for the union’s operations in Brandon. Multiple requests have been made to speak with an IRCC official. However only email correspondence has been made available at this point.
Currently, UFCW offers CLB levels 1-7 in Brandon. According to UFCW, federal funding will allow them to finish this semester under the old model which is 10 classes of level 1-7, but after June of this year, the funding will drop down to six classes of level 1-4 only.
For the past 13 years, UFCW has been offering these classes to the foreign workers at Maple Leaf Foods, plus their family members. Annually, 200 people go through the English classes, and since it began, 1,500 people have graduated from the program. The program is funded through the union, Maple Leaf and the federal government.
Without achieving the higher benchmarks, immigrants will be limited in their educational advancement and job options. Grade 12 cannot be achieved with Level 4. Level 6 is needed to become a security guard, work in retail or as a bus driver. Level 7 is required to become a child care educator, while Level 8 is needed in order to compete for most professional jobs.
The Brandon Sun pointed out the discrepancy between what the federal department is claiming and what local service providers have been told; however, IRCC was unable to provide further clarity.
"In order to ensure that services are reaching those most in need, IRCC is always adjusting programming for settlement, including language training," said IRCC spokesperson Faith St-John. "At present, there is considerable pressure across the province to address growing wait lists at the lower levels for those who have yet to access any language training in the province, hence there is some adjustment in the agreements currently under negotiation to address this need."
Regional IRCC staff will meet with Brandon service providers this spring, according to Filipps, to assess their service delivery and review the need for higher level language classes.
"Should there be demonstrated need and gaps identified at that time and available funds, IRCC will work with service providers to address pressures," she stated.
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