Chapter 9: Newcomer Family Settlement in Canada

The Legal System in Canada

This section is about the Canadian legal system and how immigrants can interact with it. Settlement workers can help immigrants locate immigration lawyers and resources. Legal concerns often include sensitive areas such as family law, child custody, and domestic violence. Settlement workers provide specialized advice that helps newcomers understand how Canadian law works.

photograph of empty provincial courtroom in British Columbia
Interior of a BC provincial courtroom

Settlement workers supporting immigrant families often extend services specially tailored to diverse family configurations. These could range from culturally sensitive counselling services to workshops on how to negotiate conflicting traditions and expectations within the family. Settlement workers also offer expertise in dispute resolution.

In Canada, in addition to the courts and the legal system, there are Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) services. These are voluntary options available in Canada. Some of the common ADR services include mediation, arbitration, and negotiation. Where appropriate, these options can be more flexible, less strict, and often cheaper than going to court; see Appropriate Dispute Resolution for Immigrant Newcomers (Todd, 2010) for more information about dispute resolution services for newcomers to Canada.

Research on dispute resolution, along with insights from focus group discussions with settlement workers, has identified four main categories of disputes commonly experienced by newcomers:

  1. Intracultural disputes: Conflicts within the same cultural or ethnic community
  2. Intercultural disputes: Conflicts that arise between members of different cultural or ethnic communities
  3. Institutional disputes: Conflicts involving newcomers and organizations, employers, or landlords
  4. Familial disputes: Conflicts within the same family, which are quite common among recent immigrants to Canada

Regardless of their cultural backgrounds, many newcomers tend to deal with conflicts by avoiding them. They may think that by ignoring the conflict, it will somehow solve itself. Ignoring the conflicts may also be a strategy newcomers use to avoid embarrassment for themselves or their families within their communities. However, experts say that if these conflicts are not addressed, they can become worse and lead to serious consequences for the families such as divorce, losing custody of children, or even legal action. When newcomer families need help, they do not first seek legal advice; instead, they often rely on friends and family for support and advice (Todd, 2010).

In deciding how to resolve a dispute within the context of newcomers, the crucial factor is their access to Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) services. Common barriers for newcomers in accessing ADR services include language fluency, financial constraints, cultural differences, bureaucratic processes, and competing life priorities like child care, work, or education.

To overcome these barriers, culturally relevant ADR services delivered by competent professionals who can speak the first language(s) of the community they serve are effective. However, these services are not readily available in some provinces for many newcomers. Ethnocultural community-based ADR services are helpful for many intracultural and familial disputes. Still, for disputes that involve multiple cultures, a team of ADR professionals who reflect the cultural differences of the disputants may be more effective. Team-based approaches, such as co-mediation with mediators who understand and can speak the preferred languages of the disputants, are considered effective for resolving various intercultural disputes (Todd, 2010).

For immigrants to use these services, awareness and knowledge are crucial. Typically, newcomers learn about and access services based on advice from trusted individuals within their community. Settlement workers, librarians, and information providers play a vital role in guiding newcomers. Media channels in the first language, such as radio, television, and newspapers, are effective in disseminating information to specific immigrant communities.

Focus group discussions with settlement workers has highlighted the need for more in-depth training programs to enhance their understanding of available ADR options. These programs should cover legal topics relevant to newcomers, including immigration law, tenancy law, employment law, and family law (Todd, 2010).

Settlement workers offer a variety of resources to help newcomers learn about Canadian family law. They can direct immigrant families to attend workshops, provide one-on-one consultations, or distribute written materials and information. Some workshops and clinics may even be offered in multiple languages to ensure a wider reach. Knowing the law is not limited to just being informed; it can make immigrant families feel more in control of their lives in a new country, thereby enhancing their sense of security and independence.

In Edmonton, immigrant families can explore family law workshops at the Alberta Law Foundation. The foundation offers sessions on divorce, child custody, and support issues. In Alberta, the Legal Education Society of Alberta (LESA) hosts workshops for lawyers, articling students, and legal support staff covering various family law topics. In addition, the Canadian Bar Association often conducts family law seminars. Throughout Canada, institutions like the Canadian Legal Information Institute (CanLII) provide online resources and webinars for those seeking family law knowledge. Workshop availability may vary, so settlement workers should check organizations for up-to-date schedules.

Here are some examples of family law workshops. Settlement workers should visit the websites or contact the organizations directly to inquire about upcoming workshops. In addition, settlement workers can consider searching online for family law workshops in their specific city or region in Alberta.

    1. Legal Aid Alberta: Legal Aid Alberta often organizes workshops on family law matters.
    2. Local Law Libraries: Check with local law libraries or community centres. They may host legal information sessions or be aware of upcoming family law workshops in your area.
    3. Law Society of Alberta: The Law Society of Alberta may have information on legal education events, including family law workshops.

These workshops provide practical advice and legal knowledge to help newcomers navigate family law complexities in Canada. Without a clear understanding of their rights and responsibilities, newcomers might unintentionally face legal issues that could range from losing child custody to dealing with criminal charges or being unaware of their rights as tenants or employees. Lack of information can lead to avoidable problems, emphasizing the crucial role of legal education programs. There is a rising need for these programs to be easily accessible, including offering them in different languages and using technology to reach those who cannot attend in person.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some examples of common legal challenges faced by newcomers to Canada, and how can settlement workers help them navigate the Canadian legal system?
  2. What are some effective strategies settlement workers have found useful when explaining complex legal concepts to clients who may not be fluent in English or familiar with the Canadian legal system?
  3. How can settlement workers ensure cultural sensitivity when helping clients from diverse cultural backgrounds with their legal concerns?
  4. What are some key differences between the legal systems of the clients’ home countries and the Canadian legal system? How could settlement workers address these differences when they are helping clients?
  5. In your experience, what are the most challenging aspects of helping clients with the Canadian legal system? How should settlement workers stay up to date on the legal system to better assist their clients?

Learning Activity 2: Role Play

Role Play: A Settlement Worker Discusses Family Law with a Newcomer to Canada


  1. Read the dialogue between Aisha, a new immigrant, and Clayton, a settlement worker.
  2. Act out the dialogue with a partner.
  3. Discuss the questions that follow.


  • Aisha: A newcomer who recently moved to Canada and has questions about family law
  • Clayton: The settlement worker, experienced in providing information and assistance to newcomers on various aspects of life in Canada


Aisha has recently moved to Canada with her husband and two children. She has heard about family law in Canada but is unclear about how it works and what her rights and responsibilities are as a newcomer. Aisha schedules an appointment with Clayton to seek guidance and information on family law.

Clayton: Hello, Aisha! How can I help you today?

Aisha: Hi, Clayton. I wanted to talk to someone about family law in Canada. We’re new here, and I’m not sure how it works.

Clayton: Of course, I’d be happy to help. Family law is an important topic, especially for newcomers. What specific questions or concerns do you have about family law?

Aisha: Well, I want to understand how child custody and support works here. It’s different from the country I came from, and I don’t know about the laws here.

Clayton: That’s a common concern. In Canada, family law is quite specific. Child custody and support are generally decided in the best interest of the child. Would you like more information on how these are determined?

Aisha: Yes, please. Also, I’ve heard about spousal support. What’s that, and when is it applicable?

Clayton: Spousal support is financial assistance one spouse may owe the other after a separation or divorce. It depends on various factors. I can provide you with resources and information on this.

Aisha: That would be helpful. What about divorce? How does that process work here?

Clayton: In Canada, divorce is handled by the court system. We can discuss the process, legal requirements, and the steps involved. It’s important to understand your rights during a divorce.

Aisha: Thank you, Clayton. It’s a relief to get some guidance on this. How can I access these resources you mentioned?

Clayton: I’ll provide you with information and legal aid services contacts that can help with family law matters. We also have workshops where you can learn more.

Aisha: That sounds great. I feel more at ease now, knowing where to start.

Clayton: I’m here to support you every step of the way, Aisha. Don’t hesitate to ask me more questions about settling in Canada.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are some common challenges that newcomers to Canada might face when trying to understand and navigate the Canadian family law system? How can settlement workers address these challenges effectively?
  2. In this role play, Clayton provided Aisha with initial information and resources on family law. What additional services or resources could settlement workers offer to newcomers to further assist them in understanding family law and related matters?
  3. How important is cultural competence and sensitivity when providing information on family law to newcomers from diverse cultural backgrounds? What strategies can settlement workers use to ensure that information is accessible and culturally relevant to clients?

Interactive Activity 1

Complete the multiple-choice quiz.

Image Credit 

Cliff MacArthur/ [Photographer]. (2020). Trial courtroom, Main St., Vancouver [Photograph]. Used with permission.


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Canadian Settlement in Action: History and Future Copyright © 2021 by NorQuest College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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