Culture Shift Hits Men Hard

cultureshift_headerMany immigrants, especially men, are disillusioned when they reach Canada

by Joe Couto

Growing up in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Ev Alarcon envisioned Canada as the American Wild West— wide-open spaces teeming with opportunity and freedoms for a family fleeing a totalitarian system of government.

After years of struggling to leave Cuba with his wife and parents, Alarcon went to Costa Rica before immigrating to Canada in 1982. Luckily for him, his father’s work for Pan Am Airlines exposed Alarcon to North American culture, so the shock of his new, colder country wasn’t as great as it might be for other immigrants. What he wasn’t prepared for was how Canada’s public sector reminded him of Cuba’s bureaucracy. “I thought Canada was a free country. But I found that it is heavily regulated and over-governed,” laments Alarcon.

Many immigrants to Canada, especially men, must deal with such disillusionments when they reach Canada. The pressure to conform to Canadian ways of raising a family, personal and social behaviour, and fluctuating moral standards can leave many newcomers frustrated and bewildered.

Tony Bertin, coordinator of Centennial College’s First Generation Student Project in Toronto, deals with many men who come to him seeking advice and help with their language, math and other skills. He sees many men struggle to find meaningful employment in a land where foreign educational credentials and experience are not accepted and often take “survival jobs”—low paying, often manual employment—to support their families.

“Men find that their education, skills, and past experience are often not recognized here,” notes Bertin. “They have issues with language and the ability to communicate fluently. Add to that the lack of family or community support and we can see the challenges they face.”

According to a study released by Statistics Canada in 2007, Canadian immigrants struggle to find work in the first decade after they arrive. The unemployment rate for men in Canada less than five years is 10.3 percent, more than double the national average. Data from the 2006 Canadian census also shows that recent immigrant men with university degrees earn just 48 cents for every dollar earned by Canadians compared to the 77 percent such immigrants earned in 1980. It takes newcomers an estimated 15 years to catch up to their Canadian-born neighbours.

The pressure put on men to simply survive during the first 10 years often results in serious family stresses. Many of the challenges are cultural in nature. For example, immigrant men who are used to clearly-defined male-female roles and child rearing practices experience conflict both within the family and in their interaction with educators and other authorities.

Cuban-born Alarcon, for example, was stunned during an interview with his son Ryan’s Grade 2 teacher that Canadian educators in the early 1990s did not seem to care much for student outcomes and academic expectations. During the interview, he asked how he could help ensure his son achieved what was expected of him in school only to be told that this was “the old way” and that students in Canada had “no expectations” to meet standards for high marks. Whether or not the teacher’s response reflected the education system’s student outcomes objectives was irrelevant to Alarcon. To an engineer trained in Cuba’s demanding education system where marks determined how well your family faired, the teacher’s attitude was unfathomable to him. The family eventually pulled Ryan from the public education system and sacrificed to give him a private school education (Ryan is now an engineer working in FortMcMurray, Alberta.)

Second generation

It’s not just first generation males who face challenges fitting into Canadian society. In 1966, at age 18months, Atul Sharma came to Canada with his parents from India. The family quickly settled in Ottawa and then New Brunswick, where Sharma’s economist father integrated himself among his professional colleagues. Like many second-generation Canadians, Sharma benefited from his parent’s strong emphasis on education. Eventually, he graduated from the University of Western Ontario as an economist and today is a highly respected consultant in Toronto with one of the world’s largest public relations firms.

Like many other newcomers to Canada, Sharma says his parents wanted their son to “be Canadian” and enrolled him in typical Canadian activities such as skating and skiing. “It is harder for the first generation to adapt because of a lack of community,” says Sharma. But over the last few decades, as 80 per cent of all immigrants to Canada came from non-European countries, social supports have improved since his parents came to Canada. For example, the number of mosques and Hindu temples serving immigrants from the Indian sub-continent in the Greater Toronto Area and Ottawa has increased dramatically over the past two decades.

Rev. Dr. Connie DenBok, pastor at Toronto’s Alderwood United Church, has worked as both a minister and church planter and seen the struggles of immigrant men upclose. “In the South Asian and up close African communities, many men left prestigious or well-paying jobs and lose that status when they come to Canada. They face frequent job changes and bouts of unemployment,” she says. “We see a pattern where they are working continuously trying to get ahead, or if they’re unemployed or underemployed, they hang out with their buddies and are rarely home.”

Home is a tough place as immigrant kids are being “de-cultured at school and don’t treat dad with proper deference,” observes DenBok. Often,men feel that they’ve “lost face” as the breadwinner of the household whether or not their wife brings in an income. This exacerbates tensions, as wives may not be home to do domestic chores to former standards. Domestic violence can be a real but underreported reality. According to denBok, the second generation tends to carry the mantle of their parents’ sacrifice and is generally driven to succeed— especially males.

Ironically, as Canada becomes more and more secular, churches are playing a big part in helping men and their families settle here, says denBok. Church groups tend to be one of the first places newcomers turn to for help for housing, employment or help with basic services. It’s also one of the prime areas where men can display their leadership skills. “Obviously it’s a self-selecting group, but many of the [immigrant] guys I’ve known have been great leaders in their church,” says denBok. “It’s one place where their gifts can be used and recognized and they can be part of a multi-generational community— if their kids aren’t trying to escape the cultural ghetto.”

Research indicates that newcomers tend to quickly develop a strong sense of belonging to Canada. A study released in March 2007 by the Dominion Institute showed that 88 per cent of second generation Canadians and 81 per cent of first-generation immigrants felt a strong connection to Canada, compared to 79 per cent of the general population. However, when it comes to visible minorities, the attachment is weaker. A study released in January 2007 by the Montreal-based Institute for Research on Public Policy concluded that visible minority immigrants are slower to integrate into Canadian society than their White, European counterparts and feel less Canadian, particularly males.

If this is true, Canadians will need to consider whether Canada continues to be a model of integration or sees some of the social disruptions that have plagued Europe where marginalized, mainly young males have rioted, most notably in France. New immigrant dads may not be the ones freezing in hockey arenas clutching Tim Horton’s coffee like their Canadian-born counterparts and may scratch their heads with greater frequency when dealing with Canadian teenage angst, but their growing numbers and diversity will mean that this portion of Canada’s population will continue to be an important part of the Canadian mosaic.

Joe Couto is a freelance writer from Toronto, Ontario. He can be reached at

The article above was featured in the September 2008 issue of SEVEN magazine.