A petition being circulated in Brandon calls on Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada to maintain current funding levels for Assiniboine Community College’s English language classes.
Written in both English and Spanish, the petition states the major budget cuts will have a "devastating impact" on hundreds of students, and urges Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen to reverse the decision.
"It is not in our national interests to place further obstacles before people we have welcomed and who are enthusiastic about contributing to Canada’s economy," states the petition.
IRCC and ACC recently finalized a new three-year contract, which slashes the college’s budget for its English Language Training program from $730,000 to $196,000 in 2017-18. It will be decreased to $185,000 in 2018-19 and $176,000 in 2019-20.
The number of student registrations in the program is now 503. With the cuts, the college will only be able to take 100 students next year — one-fifth of the current number of registered students. IRCC has stated the higher level classes have been "under-utilized" in Brandon. The local organizations dispute that claim.
IRCC recently told The Brandon Sun that they are focused on ensuring the recent influx of vulnerable newcomers have access to language services. Many are arriving in Manitoba through Canada’s Syrian refugee initiative.
"Given that these people have higher needs and lower literacy levels, IRCC has allocated settlement funding dollars towards the basic, lower-level language classes that this population requires," stated an IRCC spokesperson recently.
"As a result, IRCC has had to make some tough decisions, including reducing funding for higher-level language classes."
Canadian Language Benchmark levels 1 to 4 are the focus, while levels 5 to 8 are reduced. ACC’s program offers only the higher levels, and the demand continues to increase, as immigrants work to pursue higher education and better-paying career paths.
"CLB Level 4 is not adequate for full comprehension and engagement with the community," states the petition. "It is certainly not sufficient for employment (and specifically professional positions) since most employers require a minimum of Level 6 or higher, even for jobs in retail and stores."
HyunJoo Lee is currently enrolled in ACC’s English training. She is originally from Korea, and has dreams of becoming a health care aide. She must achieve Level 8 before she can pursue that goal.
"I have to do more study and more assessment," Lee said, adding there will only be a few class options and only one teacher at ACC next year.
"It’s not enough … it’s really awful, and very hard."
Lee and her classmates have signed the petition, which was dropped off at the office of Brandon-Souris Conservative MP Larry Maguire.
"Everybody (is) very unhappy," she said. "We want to keep study(ing) English to further our goal and (pursue) … higher education, like college or university."
Maguire said he supports the efforts of the ESL instructors and students in urging the government to "reverse this drastic cut and inexcusable action."
"The petition was recently dropped off at my office and I know more people are looking to sign it," he said. "I will personally deliver the petition to the Liberal government and let them know what their cut means for Westman communities and residents.I will continue to press them to reverse this decision."
Maguire said he has repeatedly asked for a meeting with the immigration minister, to no avail.
"It is apparent the Liberals have no intention whatsoever of listening to the people of Westman," he said. "The Liberal government and its ministers are completely ignoring emails and correspondence on important matters facing Westman constituents."
IRCC responded to The Brandon Sun’s request for comment via email:
"We will continue to work with this organization and other service providers in the area to monitor and assess the needs of the community, and will make adjustments to funding as necessary," stated IRCC spokesperson Nancy Chan.
» Twitter: @jillianaustin