The Desmond Morton Research Excellence Award is awarded annually to a talented researcher for their phenomenal achievement in their chosen field at UTM. This year, the award was bestowed to Professor Kathi Wilson from the Department of Geography, Geomatics, and Environment. Professor Wilson is renown internationally as a leader scholar in health geography, and Indigenous and immigration studies. Her research on urban to rural migration among highly skilled immigrants was the focus of her submitted project for the award.

When Professor Wilson first arrived at UTM, she believed she would continue focusing her work on Indigenous health studies. However, during her research, Professor Wilson realized that contemporary inquiry in her field lacked in many domains. “A lot of the work in geography was strictly quantitative, engaged with naïve adoptions of Indigenous knowledge, and lacked first-hand perspectives,” says Professor Wilson. The existing knowledge base at the time was limited in terms of Indigenous understanding. Furthermore, Professor Wilson explains that research conducted on Indigenous studies “overlooked the importance of urban spaces.” With this in mind, she began studying the health of Indigenous people in urban environments, simultaneously challenging the existing methods of researching Indigenous knowledge. 

Currently, Professor Wilson’s research focuses on immigrants and the “geographies of exclusion.” With the support of Professor Ian Orchard and Professor Ulrich Krull, and with the formation in 2004 of the Healthy City Stewardship Centre, an organization that collaborated with UTM to improve Mississauga public health, Professor Wilson found new inspiration. With these community connections and ideas in mind, she began exploring ways of settlement and integration for immigrants, and how place, location, and social determinants shape their health. 

Through her research, Professor Wilson identified a fallacy in the existing understanding of immigrants’ health decline, particularly the Healthy Immigrant Effect. Previously, researchers hypothesized that the phenomenon of immigrants’ health falling below the level of the Canadian population occurred roughly 10 years after their arrival. However, “data from the Canadian Longitudinal Survey to Immigrants has shown the decline happens much earlier,” says Professor Wilson. Interestingly as well, the health of certain immigrant groups, such as those from South Asia, drop more significantly than others. With new inquiries and insight, Professor Wilson set off to identify the factors in the Mississauga and Peel regions that contributed to immigrant groups’ health decline.

A crucial explanation of immigrants’ health decline relates to the geographies of exclusion. “Recent work has brought the idea of geographies of exclusion forward to examine how spaces and places are central components to excluding individuals,” explains Professor Wilson. Immigrants may feel and be perceived by others as out of place when they arrive, especially in places unwelcome to newcomers. As a result, often, immigrants are presented with fewer opportunities. Notably, it is observed that immigrants have the tendency to be underemployed, working jobs below their skill level, which results in menial wages. Immigrants tend to require a longer time to reach the income level of locals with the same skills and attainments. This time spans upwards of 10 to 15 years. 

The degree of exclusion extends to many domains. Professor Wilson’s research also considered qualitative components of exclusion, most notably exclusion “through things not only related to economic barriers, but also sociocultural barriers that immigrant populations face.” Immigrants’ accessibility to healthcare, among other public services, also comes to question. Additionally, the presence of language barriers was also investigated through Professor Wilson’s study on the inclusion of minority linguistic groups.

In one of her research papers, Professor Wilson investigated the economic barriers faced by immigrants. Certain newcomers could not accept some of the more dangerous jobs because they lacked health coverage, while others needed to take multiple jobs at a time. Likewise, some immigrants were forced to take on jobs to make ends meet, often settling for something below their level of expertise. 

Regarding immigrants’ employment prospects, Professor Wilson realized there was more to this than meets the eye.

Over the past five years, Professor Wilson shifted her focus on urban exclusion to the potential of rural inclusion. She realized that the extreme difficulties faced by newcomers integrating into urban environments have caused some immigrants to seek employment opportunities out of city centers. This coincided with the aging population in rural areas stemming from the “exodus of young adults” to urban environments—a phenomenon becoming progressively apparent. The loss of skilled labour in rural areas has created an opportunity for those regions to facilitate immigrant inclusion.

The Rural Employment Initiative (REI), organized by the Newcomer Centre of Peel, is one of the projects focusing on employment for newcomers. “The goal of the initiative is to connect talented internationally trained professionals with employment opportunities in rural areas,” says Professor Wilson. She contends that the REI is not “just about helping people move from one place to another.” The REI’s also works to create a sustainable society that attracts newcomers and retains them.

In 2016, Professor Wilson used the funds provided by the UTM Research and Study Activity Fund to jumpstart her research project, “An Exploratory Study of the Health Impacts of Changing Settlement Patterns of Immigrants in Peel Region, ON.” In this ongoing study, 50 immigrants considering relocation to rural areas were divided into focus groups, and their concerns and requirements were explored. Additionally, a survey was conducted on the boards of trades and governments of rural towns in Ontario to explore the conditions of relocating immigrants to those areas. 

Through studying the results of the focus groups, Professor Wilson identified the key challenges in relocating immigrants to rural towns. She notes that immigrants were deeply concerned about the lack of information about these towns, service and education needs, and the uncertainty of rural areas being any more inclusive than urban areas. There were also several reservations expressed by the immigrants planning to relocate, with three particularly consistent concerns. Firstly, the affordability and availability of housing was the most reoccurring concern observed among immigrants. Next, the availability of public transit in rural towns was imperative to immigrants as they feared they would not have private transit available to them, resorting to public transit systems completely. Lastly, it was observed that immigrants feared communication would prove challenging with the existence of language barriers.

The surveys yielded vital results. Using the responses, Professor Wilson identified the demand for skilled labour in responding rural areas, potential barriers to integration of immigrants, and the respondents’ perception of those barriers to integration. This helped determine the readiness of responding towns in accepting relocating immigrants, “not only from an infrastructure perspective, but in terms of social supports.”

At the hands of globalization, the number of immigrants is increasing and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. Professor Wilson’s research shows the immense difficulties for immigrants to succeed in an unwelcoming environment. But those difficulties can cease to exist if we put some effort into accepting newcomers and create a nurturing space where they are treated equally and given the same opportunities. We do not need a giant leap, but small steps, such as including that one person who speaks a different language in our day-to-day socialization. Slowly and steadily, we can create a welcoming environment that prompts newcomers to put down roots, expanding our community. 

The Desmond Morton Research Excellence Award will continue to facilitate Professor Wilson’s efforts in creating this welcoming space in the Peel and Mississauga regions. Her ambitions are imperative to a sustainable Canadian economy. As a country that advocates for immigration and equal opportunity for all, there is still a lot of work to be done. 

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