2019 Interview with Chris Friesen, Director of Settlement Services at ISSofBC

Feature Space Profile: ISSofBC Welcome Centre - Vancouver

            Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia (ISSofBC) was incorporated as the first immigrant-serving organization in B.C. in 1972 and has been hard at work in the decades since then to fulfill its mission of helping immigrants build a future in Canada. Over the years, ISSofBC expanded to offer services such as English language classes, mentoring programmes, trauma support, and many others at numerous locations across the lower mainland and beyond. Today, ISSofBC is one of the largest immigrant-serving agencies in Canada.

            In June of 2016, ISSofBC opened its first Welcome Centre, on Victoria Drive in Vancouver. The range of services available sets this model apart from ISSofBC’s other locations. Built on land leased from the City of Vancouver, the 58,000 square foot facility serves as a one-stop-shop for new arrivals to Canada. ISSofBC owns and operates the building and has brought in tenant organizations to ensure all necessary services are present. There are currently seven tenants co-located at the Welcome Centre, and together they are able to provide services in over 40 languages including childcare, banking, healthcare, English language training, and employment services. The Vancouver Welcome Centre also contains 140 beds in 18 flexible units of on-site housing for newly-arrived immigrants and refugees for their first four to five weeks in Canada. During this time, all of the Welcome Centre’s services are readily available to them, and staff help them find longer-term housing. 

            From a client-centred and settlement-journey perspective, notes Director of Settlement Services Chris Friesen, ISSofBC has “put service delivery support to new comers on its head.” Whereas prior to the Welcome Centre’s opening clients had to visit seven different locations around the city to access these services, now they simply have to walk down the hall. Friesen views this ease of access as the major benefit of the Welcome Centre model to its clients.

            From an organizational perspective, the model has generated significant benefits as well. Co-location has facilitated new and creative collaborations between the various service-providers. It has also helped reduce their costs by sharing reception and meeting-room needs. These are added benefits to the smaller organizations that may not have had access to such facilities before moving to the Welcome Centre. The model has also allowed tenants to better understand the needs of refugees through working with them in-person every day.

The Welcome Centre shows that ISSofBC has been “truly looking at social purpose as a way of enhanced client services, enhanced settlement outcomes, and as a model for refugee integration elsewhere in Canada and around the world,” says Friesen. The success of the Welcome Centre also suggests that such a model could be used by organizations working with other populations as well. Indeed, the Vancouver Welcome Centre received global attention in late 2016 following a visit from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. This sparked a continued flow of interest and requests for advice from government representatives, international not-for-profits and NGOs, and researchers interested in learning from the Welcome Centre.

As a testament to the appeal of the Welcome Centre model, the space was full shortly after it first opened. This continued reality, and the number of potential tenant organizations in contact with ISSofBC also serves to highlight the need for social purpose real estate of this kind in the city. Recognizing the space-related challenges facing many organizations, Friesen adds, “the opportunity to own our own facility and support other organizations with stable, nice space is something we’re very proud of.”

            So, what’s next for ISSofBC? On May 2nd the organization celebrated the official opening of their Welcome Centre in Surrey. This second Welcome Centre acts as a service-mall for new arrivals: while it does not include housing, it offers the same wide range of services as the Vancouver Centre, including a number of innovative new programmes. ISSofBC is also in talks with potential new partner organizations and is looking for new building opportunities to expand the Welcome Centre model even further.

            In the more immediate future, ISSofBC will be observing United Nations World Refugee Day on June 20th by welcoming yet another newly-arrived family to Canada. In addition to their usual operations, ISSofBC will be working with other organizations to run World Refugee Day programming at the Vancouver Public Library Central branch.