Self-Perceived Success
of Adjustment by
Sri Lankan Immigrants
in Metropolitan Toronto:
A Preliminary Report

By: Caryl Abrahams & Lisa Steven

From: Polyphony Vol.12 pp.30-34
© 1990 Multicultural History Society of Ontario

This study concerns a selection of the Sri Lankan immigrant community that arrived in Canada before the recent influx of Tamil refugees from that country. It attempts to measure the success of their adaptation from the point of view of community members.

This brief report is both preliminary and selective. The sample used in the survey was largely limited to Sinhalese and Burghers, people of mixed European and indigenous Sri Lankan descent. Much of this immigration occurred before the major influx of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka, the result of the civil war in that country, which still continues. This new group of Sri Lankan refugees is quite different from the earlier, largely English-speaking group of educated immigrants with which this study is concerned. The refugees are overwhelmingly Tamil, and many can only speak the Tamil language. In addition, their education has often been disrupted by the instability in Sri Lanka, and they generally do not come from the more privileged middle and upper classes in that country. All of the countries of the South Asian region are, like Canada, multi ethnic and multicultural societies. We are concerned here with a small group that represents only a portion of Sri Lankan society both in their home country and in their new home in Canada.

It is apparent that relatively little research has been conducted on Sri Lankan immigrants in Canada and the factors that facilitate their successful adjustment. Most of the literature concerns the South Asian community in general and the factors that inhibit its adjustment. This report presents the results of an exploratory, qualitative study of the self-perceived success of the adjustment by Sri Lankan immigrants to Metropolitan Toronto and seeks to provide some basic data to fill the gaps in the existing literature(1).

For statistical purposes, information regarding the Sri Lankan Canadian population is usually combined with the data on the south Asian population. This produces a homogenization of the diverse ethnic groups from South Asia. The present exploratory study is important because it contributes to our understanding of the diversity of South Asain immigrants and examines relatively unexplored aspects of Sri Lankan immigration. By identifying the factors that contribute to the successful adjustment of Sri Lankan immigrants, their adaptation experience will be understood better and means may be suggested to improve immigration services in Canada.

A review of the available literature helped to identify areas that need further study. For instance, by gaining a better understanding of the Sri Lankan ethnic group in Canada, leasons for immigration, the immigration process, and factors influencing adaptation, we can identify, for further exploration, qualitative factors that may promote successful adjustment.

The causes of Sri Lankan emigration identified in the literature include changes in political party dominance, intermittent political instability, high unemployment, poverty, and lack of career opportunities.

According to S. McDaniel, Canada's immigration policy "has been and continues to be defined in terms of 'what immigrants can do for Canada.' Canada's immigration policy in the past has been pegged rather directly to Canada's economic goals" (McDaniel, 1986: 101). The Canadian government used the Sri Lankan English newspapers to encourage young people to settle in Canada (McAteer, 1978). Canada was portrayed as a "land of opportunity" that welcomed the increasing number of under employed or unemployed but educated Sri Lankan youth (Ontario, 1981). This situation created a brain drain, to Canada, of educated and skilled people with a good command of the English language. George Kurian (1982) reports that South Asian immigrants have less difficulty adjusting to life in Canada if they are well educated. The Ontario Ministry of Culture and Recreation (1981) observes that Sri Lankans integrate well into Canadian life because many of them are highly educated and skilled people with a good command of English. Their knowledge of English results from the British colonial system in Ceylon and from the use of English as the language of education and business in Sri Lanka and, until 1966, as the official language of the country (Carey, 1976). Many English-speaking Burghers immigrated to Canada when Sinhalese became the official language. The combination of language and education has enabled them to upgrade their education in Canada and in turn, has facilitated their adaptation.

The current exploratory study was undertaken to obtain qualitative data on the self-perceived adjustment of Sri Lankan immigrants in Metropolitan Toronto. After completing the literature review, research students from the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto developed an interview guide to assist in gathering these data. Open-ended interviews were used. No suggestions regarding answers were given or implied. The guide was pre-tested and alterations were made before a final version was prepared.

The guide consists of three major sections. The first asks for personal and demographic data, such as the age, sex, marital status, and education of the respondents. The second section deals with the preparation for, and process of immigration and attempts to ascertain how the decision was made to immigrate to Canada and what preparations were made for immigration. The final section of the interview guide was designed to obtain qualitative data on the success of adjustment of Sri Lankan immigrants in Metropolitan Toronto. Respondents were asked to describe what influenced their adaptation, and researchers sought to avoid North American preconceptions and culturally biased criteria regarding adjustment.

The initial sample consisted of thirty-three families from the Canada Sri Lanka Association of Metropolitan Toronto who volunteered to participate. Potential respondents were contacted in advance by a director of the association and told of the nature of the study. The self-selection of the sample limited the range of respondents. Participants were assigned randomly to interviewers, each family was telephoned by an interviewer who arranged a meeting. Interviews were conducted in English in the home of the respondents.

The data presented here represent the responses of thirty-seven persons, eighteen women and nineteen men, all born in Sri Lanka. The respondents ranged in age from 30 to 70; the average was 44. All but one respondent were married. Seventy-four percent of the sample were Canadian citizens, the rest having kept their landed immigrant status. All respondents had been in Canada at least three years. Although twenty-one individuals (56 per cent) have Sinhalese as their mother tongue, thirteen (35 per cent) gave English. Only 8 per cent of the sample reported Tamil as their mother tongue.

Only one person reported less than secondary education, and 24 per cent had completed post-secondary, postgraduate, or professional education. Thirty-three persons had completed the greater part of their education in Sri Lanka, although twenty-five respondents from the sample had some form of Canadian upgrading or additional post secondary work since arriving here. Eighty-seven per cent of the sample reported that they had relatives in Sri Lanka. The majority of respondents visited Sri Lanka every four or five years and only 13 per cent had never returned since immigrating to Canada.

In the discussion of immigration, several factors emerged as significant. Only one person had visited Canada before emigrating. Seventy-six per cent of the respondents reported that their first overseas living experience occurred in Canada, although 32 per cent had previously made at least one visit to another country.

When describing the immigration process, twenty-one respondents (56.8 per cent) reported that they came to Canada with other family members. For 54 per cent of the sample, the decision to emigrate was made for them by family members. Of the sixteen respondents who decided independently to emigrate to Canada, eleven were men while only five were women. Their reasons for immigrating to Canada included: family re-unification (51.3 per cent), educational or employment opportunities (10.8 per cent), and the political situation in Sri Lanka (10.8 per cent). Twenty-two respondents had Sri Lankan friends in Canada before emigrating; thirty-five people did not. When asked about financial support available for immigrating, twenty-eight respondents said that relatives in Canada had helped financially or helped with housing, and eight people reported that they had help from friends.

In response to the question "What are the most important things contributing to your adjustment in Canada?" the following variables were identified: personal factors, 78 per cent (twenty-nine respondents), such as knowledge of English and personal motivation; cultural factors, 57 per cent (twenty one respondents), such as having a cultural background similar to that of Canadians and a commitment to Canada; economic, occupational, and educational opportunities in Canada, 52 per cent (eighteen respondents); family, 46 per cent (seventeen respondents); and Sri Lankan friends, 38 per cent (ten respondents). In the discussion of adiustment factors, the importance of families was consistent with the reasons given for immigrating. Issues of a personal nature like education, language, or Western orientation, were consistent with factors previously identified with successful adjustment in the literature already discussed.

Of the thirty-seven respondents, thirty four (91.9 per cent) commented that changes in their family occurred after immigrating to Canada. Specifically, seven respondents described an improvement in the economic situation of the family, while three noted a deterioration. Fifty-four per cent reported family changes relating to women. For instance, eight respondents remarked that women were now working for wages, and another eight said that men were having to participate in household chores. Family changes related to children were reported by 59.5 per cent of the sample. For example, twelve respondents reported that their children were more independent since immigrating to Canada.

A change in personal lives since immigrating to Canada was reported by 86.5 per cent (thirty-two respondents). Fourteen people reported personal changes in relation to the household, five reported less reliance on neighbours, and six people reported having less time.

Participation in leisure activities was an additional topic explored. Eighty-two per cent of the respondents felt that, in general, Sri Lankan Canadians were active in leisure pursuits, although only 67 per cent said that they, personally, were active. They identified leisure activities as sports, dances, musical events, religious activities, cultural activities, and so forth.

This reporting is preliminary and includes only the data from the first round of interviews. Additional interviews now underway will expand the data base to include a somewhat wider variety of respondents as well as double the sample size. It is hoped that more specific data regarding self-identified factors influencing adjustment by Sri Lankan immigrants will be forthcoming when the data are complete. The research should be completed by the end of 1991.

Caryl Abrahams is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Social Work and a member of the Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Toronto. Lisa Steven is a recent graduate of the Faculty of Social Work.

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