Citizenship Matters: Re-examining Income (In)Security of Immigrant Seniors

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Org: Alternative Planning Group (APG)
Date: 2009

This report seeks to explore the lack of access to income security programs by immigrant seniors, specifically the 10 year residency waiting period for social security benefits imposed on immigrant seniors who came to Canada under the Family Class.


Through extensive consultation with their constituents, APG has recognized the fact that the existing income security policy significantly impacts the well-being of senior members of immigrant communities In principle, the Old Age Security (OAS) Program is set up to provide income security to Canadian seniors. It is not based on any personal financial contribution; and in general people aged 65 or up can apply. There is, however, a 10 year residence requirement in order to qualify. In order to receive the maximum amount, a person must have lived in Canada for 40 years after age 18. Being excluded from the OAS and therefore also denied access to the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), immigrant seniors who came under sponsorship by their family become very vulnerable to poverty and social isolation when sponsorship breaks down. Compounded with other intersecting issues like language barriers, cultural differences, ever-increasing cost of living, lack of affordable social housing, immigrant seniors are often entrapped in social isolation and financial dependence.

Reviewing the existing literature, we confirm that low income is very prevalent among immigrant seniors and it poses challenges to their settlement, integration and citizenship. Yet, existing immigration and immigrant research typically focuses on population statistics, and needs and issues associated with immigration and settlement; in depth investigation of income insecurity and its social, economic, and physiological implications from the standpoint of immigrant seniors is extremely limited. This study is an important step in a program of research that aims at addressing this particular information and knowledge gap.


The following are the major themes that emerged in the focus group discussions held with immigrant seniors:

  • Economic impact of immigration: In addition to application fees and relocation expenses, the seniors sometimes had to sell their property and belongings at low prices or simply give them away at home and acquire new ones at a much higher price in the new country. Many immigrant seniors are thus caught in a defeated, disempowering, and helpless situation.
  • Psychological impact of immigration and poverty on quality of life: Immigrant seniors became dependent on their children upon arrival in Canada, even when they had lived independent life at home. This role reversal often compromises their freedom and autonomy.
  • Citizenship and belonging: The existing OAS policy constitutes a division between immigrant and non-immigrant seniors. It creates two different classes of citizens when it comes to government support.
  • Inadequate social housing and lack of affordable transportation: The high cost of public transportation and absence of affordable social housing leave seniors with no choice but enduring social isolation and distress when sponsorship breaks down.
  • Seniors’ role in advocacy and policy review: Apart from voicing their concerns and struggles, the participants are eager to explore ways to bring about change. Some of the immigrant seniors are well informed about the policy and legislation processes, and demonstrate a strong readiness to dialogue with politicians and policy makers. When coming up with suggestions, they tend to articulate moderated alternatives instead of radical or extreme positions.

The authors make recommendations for a variety of stakeholder and service groups, including community members, researchers, immigrant community organizations and service providers, and policy makers.