Change Can Happen. Profiles in community leadership: Chris Friesen

Central City Foundation is once again celebrating eight examples of extraordinary community leadership. We are highlighting the dedication and determination of those whose support for community-led solutions helped people in our inner city and beyond and have demonstrated that change happen in our community. As part of this celebration, we have asked each of our profiled leaders to share with us their thoughts on leadership, community, and their relationship with Central City Foundation.

Chris Friesen, Chief Operating Officer, ISSofBC

This year, Central City Foundation is celebrating Chris, who has worked tirelessly to build connections and break down silos in the immigrant services sector to ensure the best services and supports for newcomers, including a quick and innovative response to meet the unique needs of Ukrainian refugees.

Q: How does your organization address the challenging conditions faced by the people you serve? What is the change that you are working to make in the community you serve?

For over 50 years, ISSofBC has been continuously learning how to work with and support immigrants and refugees as they build their new lives in Canada. We are a value driven agency that is curious, responsive, and continually testing and adjusting our approaches as we strive to support the goals and aspirations of newcomers. We work hard to listen, understand and implement ways to create a more accessible, welcoming and inclusive community. Humility guides our work; we don’t have all the answers. We also believe that welcoming, settling and integrating immigrants and refugees requires an all of society approach. Our collective impact is stronger when we work collaboratively with others including —governments, employers, neighbours, sector colleagues and other members of civil society.

Canada is facing an aging population, declining birth rate and the lowest unemployment in decades. Moving forward, international migration will account for most, if not all, of our net population growth. Ultimately, immigrants will be a key driver to our post covid economic recovery and their ability to successfully integrate, contribute and fully utilize their training, skills and other assets will benefit all of us. This is the change we strive towards.

Q: How would you describe some of the common lived experiences, systemic inequalities/inequities and other challenges faced by the people you work with or that your members work with?

We help welcome, settle and integrate immigrants and refugees into the community so that they can build a successful future, as they define, in Canada. While immigrants chose to come to Canada, refugees do not choose but are forced to leave their home countries, seek asylum and a very small percentage within the global refugee crisis, some will resettle to this country. The difference is important and defines specific support interventions needed and that we provide. There are a variety of challenges that newcomers face when they arrive in Canada. Securing permanent and affordable rental housing is one of the biggest challenges, and it’s getting worse. We need to think through how to better assist people arriving here to address their housing needs. While there are growing demands for high and low skilled people that will lead to higher levels of immigration for the foreseeable future, there needs to be a connection to a national housing strategy. You can’t increase immigration levels and not consider having sufficient affordable housing stock in place. Another issue we see is the inability of newcomers to fully utilize their internationally acquired credentials or at least have a clear pathway for recertification or alternative career options. We can’t afford to continue to waste the enormous human capital of newcomers by some employers demanding previous Canadian work experience and offering them positions where they are overqualified and in low skill paid work. Racism also impacts our ability to support newcomers whether that is finding housing because they do not have previous references, labour market attachment, etc. Over the years, we have found that, immigrants and refugees are both grateful and eager to contribute and give back to this country in numerous ways. Ultimately, immigration and our work is about nation building, social and economic integration and ultimately, building a more just and inclusive society.

Q: How would you describe the importance of community connections and a sense of acceptance and belonging for the people you work with?

Every newcomer has strengths, assets and abilities that will contribute to our community and this country. We need to find better ways to make sure we are assessing these strengths and abilities and facilitating systems and mechanism that allow everyone to reach their aspirations and goal, however, they define success. A cornerstone of our work at ISSofBC is creating spaces through volunteer engagement and other programming to create a sense of inclusiveness and belonging. They are part of our core values. If newcomers don’t feel like they belong and can contribute, it is extremely difficult to rebuild one’s life as future Canadians. As a society, a collective effort is needed to ensure settlement and integration can happen. While newcomers may have certain rights and responsibilities, host communities must also strive to build more welcoming and inclusive communities.

Q: How would you describe the value of developing relationships and collaboration between your organization and funders like Central City Foundation?

Central City Foundation’s social purpose real estate support is just one of the invaluable leadership roles they play in our community that we are thankful for. They were one of the first contributors of the ISSofBC Welcome Centre vision. The ISSofBC Welcome Centre that opened in June 2016 is a social purpose-built facility for immigrants and refugees located in East Vancouver. The centre remains unique in the world, inspiring a new model of immigrant integration. Built from a philosophy that our collective impact is stronger when we work together and recognizing the expertise of what others bring to the table has allowed us the ability to collectively provide enhanced wrap around supports for immigrants and refugees., The ISSofBC Welcome Centre offers various supports delivered in partnership with five co-location partners and tenants that include temporary housing, primary healthcare, banking services, trauma informed programming, English as an Additional Language classes, a legal clinic, pre-school, multilingual settlement and employment programming and more.