A Systematic Approach
to Discrimination in the
Provision of Social Services:
South Vancouver.

By: David Sangha

From: Currents Summer 1987 pp. 8-9
© 1987 Urban Alliance on Race Relations

The provision of public services to visible minorities is tainted with discrimination. In earlier times, the discrimination was blatant and the intent to harm members of certain groups was very obvious. Now, many of the sources of discrimination are unintentional, often very subtle and result in practices which are largely the result of two factors. First, the allocation of resources which do not reflect the changes in the cultural and racial make-up of the country, and secondly, the improper use of discretionary power by social service workers. These two factors have produced discriminatory effects in the provision of social services.

Resource Allocation

Social service administrators have continued to allocate their resources to programs directed at the majority society. This is often done in spite of the fact that the potential consumer base of their agencies is increasingly from ethnic/cultural minority groups for whom these programs have little meaning. At a means level, governments continue to allocate the same proportion of funding to these main stream organizations while continuing to distribute either little or no funding to agencies providing specialized services to the growing ethnic and racial minority populations.

One example of this function of systemic discrimination in social service delivery at a more micro level can be found in the social service delivery system presently in place in South Vancouver.

South Vancouver is a community which has undergone a dramatic demographic change in the last twenty years. During this period, Indo-Canadians have gone from about one per cent to almost 10 per cent of the population of this area. If one were to include other visible minorities, the proportion may well be close to 16 per cent. (1)

However, the programs offered by individual organizations, the four community centres, and the two libraries in the area, do not adequately reflect the changing composition of the population. None of these organizations have specialized programs which meet the needs of these new groups and their staffs do not reflect the ethnic/ racial composition of the area. The staff of the two Ministry of Human Resources offices in the area are almost all from the majority culture, and therefore do not reflect the multicultural reality of their client population.

The one "mainstream" agency which has made some changes in its delivery system is the South Vancouver Neighbourhood Home. In a presentation to the Special Committee on Visible Minorities, the director of Neighbourhood House noted the commitment which the House has exhibited towards the Indo-Canadian community through the establishment of an ethnic worker position to provide services (such as English as a Second Language) to the Indo-Canadian community. But upon closer examination of this program, we find a less clear commitment to serving the needs of minorities than might at first appear.

The ethnic worker's position is one of the very few in the agency which is reliant solely on various federal government work schemes. The salary is comparatively low and the reliance on grants ensures a tenuous existence for the program. It is not surprising, therefore, that the agency has had difficulty attracting professionally trained workers for the position. Because of the weak financial base, the range of services offered by the ethnic worker has been limited to a few programs for immigrant women. As a result, the implementation of services for other important target groups, such as immigrant children and adolescents, have thus far not been attempted.

Further to this, other generic programs for youth, seniors and ado- lescents would appear to have under gone few changes to make them more attractive to a culturally different clientele. It would also appear that Neighbourhood House does not have any future plans to develop programs to meet the specialized needs of various sectors of the ethnic client "market" such as heritage language programs, literature groups etc. If the needs of the ethnic/racial groups are not being met by these "mainstream" organizations, then where are they being met?

In the main, the social service needs of these groups are either being met by the local temples or by the Immigrant Services Centre. It is important to view the work of this latter agency from the macro perspective of its position in the South Vancouver social services delivery system to show how it serves as a symbol of the exploitation of immigrants by various levels of government.

The Immigrant Services Centre serves virtually all of the social service needs of the Indo-Canadian community in South Vancouver. Besides providing integrative services such as English as a Second Language and citizenship classes, the Centre also provides counselling, job training and advocacy services. A reasonable argument could be made that other agencies should also be able to undertake at least some of these services in order to meet the multicultural reality of the area.

However, the clearest example of this lack of change on the part of agencies is the fact that the bulk of the activity of the Centre's staff focuses on translating and providing cultural information for other statutory agencies such as the Ministry of Human Resources, the local Canada Employment Centre, the Vancouver City Police and Health and Welfare Canada (e.g. pensions and family allowance applications). When one considers the obvious differences in funding and number of staff, it is remarkable that none of these agencies has been willing and/or able to recruit a multicultural, multilingual staff to handle these situations to date.

Thus, despite the fact that much of the Immigrant Services Centre's work has to do with a provincial government agency (Ministry of Human Resources), the provincial government provides no funding for this agency. The federal government has provided year-to-year funding for one position (at sub-standard wages) and the City of Vancouver provides funding for one other position. And despite the multiplicity of roles which the Centre provides, including facilitating other agencies to fulfill their mandates, its case is typical of other immigrant serving agencies and organizations forced to function on a year to year basis. As is the case with the ethnic worker position, one cannot help but wonder how such a state of flux and tenuosity will affect the abilities immigrant serving agencies and their personnel in the long run.

Discretionary Powers

The second major complicating factor lies in the improper use of discretionary power by social workers employed by statutory agencies such as the Ministry of Human Resources (M.H.R). These workers are often given mandates which allow them great deal of freedom and discretion to intervene in various situations in ways which are clearly not in the best interests of visible minorities.

From a systemic view, the issue is not so much the attitudes of social workers but rather the lack of appropriate training in cross-cultural situations and the wide discretionary powers afforded them under the present Family and Child Service Act and accompanying regulations.

The Ministry of Human Resources also has considerable discretion in deciding the appropriateness of various support services for families in crisis. Interestingly enough, the M.H.R has rarely, if ever, entered into a special services contract with any of the local ethnic self-help groups, despite their history of excellent service provision which has often been provided on voluntary basis to the Ministry. Instead, the M.H.R prefers to pay other"mainstream" service providers for the provision of services to racial and ethnic minorities even though they often lack the same level of expertise.

Further to this, a great deal of discretion is afforded to financial assistance workers in the provision of income assistance and specifically in deciding which applications are entitled to "crisis grants". According to the experience of a B.C. senior social worker in the M.H.R, this discretionary power has been used to disallow (proportionately) a larger number of Indo-Canadians from acquiring these grants. Again from the systemic view, the problem revolves around the vague regulation surrounding the provision of such grants.

Systemic Remedies

Despite their tax dollar "investment" into the "welfare state", it appears that Canada's racial and ethnic minorities have been left virtually unserved by the country's social service systems. Most agencies have not changed their staffs or service delivery systems to meet the needs of the changing populations they are supposed to serve, as illustrated by the case of South Vancouver's Indo-Canadian community. Instead, these agencies leave much of the task to immigrant service agencies which an funded on the most tenuous of bases.

Perhaps more serious still is the fact that although social workers have traditionally seen their profession as being in the vanguard of the movement for better conditions for immigrants, they may nevertheless be using their discretionary powers to hinder immigrants rather than help them.

If social workers are to become part of the solution, they too will have to advocate for systemic remedies. With solid research and a partnership with previously disaffected groups, social workers can play a leading role in beginning the process of dismantling systemic barriers to adequate services for all groups in Canadian society.

David Sangha is an MSW graduate from the University of British Columbia's School of Social Work and is active in the race relations field in Vancouver.


1 Reg Robson, Ethnic Conflict in Vancouver, p.l5.

Return to home page

Website design: TG Magazine, 1996