Arts researchers take significant role in huge national project on immigration

Helen Metella - 08 May 2023

Figuring out how immigrants to Canada adapt and thrive is a weighty issue that the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta is perfectly equipped to help address, says a lead participant on a massive new research project designed to investigate the topic through an interdisciplinary lens that crosses the social sciences, humanities, engineering and other areas.

“The Faculty of Arts is a fabulous site for multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary exchanges,” says Yasmeen Abu-Laban, a professor of political science and the training co-lead on a newly announced study, Migrant Integration in the Mid-21st Century: Bridging Divides.

“It’s baked into the history of this Faculty. There are very few (like us) that have fine arts researchers alongside social sciences and humanities.”

Such expertise is invaluable, says Abu-Laban. “Take something like the pandemic. We needed scientists to get the vaccines but we needed social scientists to understand why people weren’t getting them.”

Faculty of Arts’ researchers have a finely honed understanding about the relevance of research across different divides because they’ve engaged in it for decades, she says. The Faculty was involved in Canada’s contribution to the Metropolis Project, an international research project launched in 1996 to investigate the effect immigration is having on cities. Until 2014, the Prairie Metropolis Centre established at the U of A was the hub for research on immigration and integration involving six prairie universities.

U of A’s Faculty of Arts is also home to numerous researchers with a demonstrated interest in immigration who are from diverse departments, including sociology, economics, modern languages and cultural studies, music and English.

All of this led to the Faculty of Arts (along with the U of A’s Faculties of Science and Nursing) becoming major participants in a just-announced national research project funded by the Canadian government’s Canada First Research Excellence Fund. 

Bridging Divides is led by Toronto Metropolitan University. Other university partners besides the U of A are the University of British Columbia and Concordia University in Montreal (all located in large urban centres, which is where almost 90 percent of immigrants and refugees settle).


Over seven years, the project will examine how immigrants integrate socially, economically, politically and spatially. Specifically, research will focus on health, technology, housing and neighbourhoods, and political and civic participation. In addition to the immigrant experience, says Abu-Laban, researchers will look at how that integration impacts the larger society and causes it to evolve. 

As the Canada Research Chair in the Politics of Citizenship and Human Rights, Abu-Laban’s own focus will be on both those areas of inquiry, and especially how they are affected by changes in advanced digital technologies, which is a thread running throughout the project.

“For example, what is its role around possible divisions or polarizations? What if there’s misinformation or deliberate disinformation, what implications does that have for how we understand immigration?”

Other big questions that interest her are whether more reliance on advanced technology creates access barriers for immigrants, where issues of equity are ascendant, and what impact the recent growth in populism and xenophobia by certain politicians is having on immigrant integration.


Other researchers from the Faculty of Arts working on the project include Xingfei Liu, an assistant professor of economics, who will examine how immigrants access jobs, whether the work they’re doing is changing and if that’s because of wider changes in society. Geoffrey Rockwell, a professor of digital humanities and philosophy, will be able to address the implications that technological changes are having on immigrants in relation to the wider society.

Abu-Laban is keen to delve into the admittedly daunting project and not just because we’re in an era when climate change and vast numbers of refugees continue to make immigration important to Canada’s evolution and economic growth. She’s also thrilled by what such a significant chunk of work offers U of A students training at all levels.

“It allows for exchanges and opportunities across the country with different researchers and different disciplines. I’m excited about the impact and potential of that for future generations of scholars.”

It’s a sentiment that is echoed by Marie Carrière, associate dean of research for the Faculty of Arts.

“The significance of this CFREF funding is undeniable, not just because of the millions of dollars it will bring into the University, but more importantly, because of the incredible training opportunities it will provide to students and its leveraging of social science research for the benefit of society,” she says.

“It is thanks to top Arts scholars like Professor Abu-Laban and her interdisciplinary team members that the University of Alberta is able to be a lead partner in such large-scale, cross-institutional research,” she adds. “The key questions this important project will be posing in terms of immigrant integration and twenty-first-century Canada could not be more pressing.”