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David Firang,
Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Social Work, Trent University, Ontario, Canada.

Transnational social work: a neglected practice in Canada?

Since the idea of immigrant transnationalism was articulated and popularized by cultural anthropologists in the early 1990s, several scholars, mostly from the social sciences, have adopted transnationalism in examining issues of immigrants’ settlement and integration. Recently, the connection between transnationalism and social work is also emerging, particularly in Australia and Europe. Unfortunately, the relationship between transnationalism and the social work profession has not been well explored in Canada. In this respect, many scholars have appealed to North American, especially Canadian social work professionals to adopt a transnational perspective that recognizes social work’s role beyond a bounded national state. This article responds to the call of incorporating transnationalism into the social work profession in Canada. Using a vignette, this article demonstrates the significance and relevance of incorporating transnational social work perspectives in addressing issues with immigrants and refugees in Canada.


Since the notion of immigrant transnationalism was articulated by cultural anthropologists (Glick Schiller, Basch, and Szanton Blanc, 1992; Basch et al., 1994) and later propagated by Portes and his colleagues (Portes, et al., 1999), a number of scholars, mostly from the social sciences (e.g., Faist 2000a; 2000b; Itzigsohn et al., 1999; Robinson, 2005), have popularized transnationalism across various academic disciplines. Transnational scholars agree that large numbers of immigrants aim for integration into their adopted country, but do not abandon their homelands. Instead, immigrants construct, maintain, and sustain multiple economic, political, and social relations with their country of origin. The burgeoning transnational literature speaks to the fact that contemporary immigrant transnationalism has become frequent and intense and is a response to two key processes: (1) contemporary globalization and (2) advances in communication and transportation technologies. The advent of modern transportation and communication technologies has facilitated immigrants’ transnational practices have not only allowed the rich and elites to participate in the global capitalist market, but has also promoted what Portes (2003) describe as transnationalism “from below” - the process of empowering ordinary and poor people to participate in cross border activities.

While several scholars, mostly from the social sciences have adopted and popularized transnationalism across various academic and professional disciplines, the idea of transnationalism in social work is also emerging, particularly in Europe and Australia. Unfortunately, the relationship between transnationalism and the social work profession has not been well explored in North America generally and Canada particularly. In this respect, many scholars (e.g., Midgely 2018; Schwarzer, Kämmerer-Rütten, Schleyer-Lindemann, Wang, 2016), have appealed to North American social work professionals to adopt a transnational perspective that recognizes social work’s role beyond the bounded nation-state. In the U.S., some scholars (e.g., Midgely 2018; Schwarzeret al., 2016), have heeded to this call. It seems an exploration of transnationality and social work might have been, albeit, captured in the literature in the U.S in the early 1990s (Midgley, 2018; Furman & Negi, 2010). However, as Wallimann (2014) noted, even to- date social work educators in the U.S have employed transnational perspectives rather sparsely, irregularly and, above all, not explicitly.

While the U.S social work educators elsewhere in the world are striving to embrace the notion of transnationalism, the impact of transnationalism on social work in Canada has been given little attention in the Canadian social work literature, although exemption can be claimed for the recent works of Ives, Hanley, Walsh and Este (2014). It is rather unfortunate to note that while our world is increasingly marked by transnational processes, social work education in Canada seems to have got trapped in a national context. In the era of globalization, the emergence of a population of migrants, whose lives transcend across national borders, should be particularly important to Canadian social work research and practice.

The objectives of this article are twofold: 1) it responds to the call to embrace transnational perspectives into the Canadian social work profession and 2) it makes an important contribution to understand the way social work should respond to social needs and problems of those clients whose lives transcends across national borders.

Why the Need For Transnational Social Work in Canada?

The practice case example below will illustrate the significant of transnational social work practice in Canada.

The Vignette/Practice Case Example

A.R., migrated from Ghana to Canada in 1990 to study Business Administration at the University of Toronto. Prior to migrating to Canada, A.R held the position of Senior Accountant in the Ministry of Finance in Ghana. At the initial stages of the settlement process, A.R struggled to adapt to the Canadian environment. He found the weather bitterly cold to adjust, and at the same time experienced a culture shock. Despite these difficulties, he graduated with an MBA degree in 1993. After a few years of graduating from University of Toronto, he gradually adjusted and settled into the Canadian cultural milieu. However, A.R. did not find a job in the Canadian labour market that merit his MBA degree. He was forced to work in a manufacturing factory plant as a production line assistant, a position he held over 20 years. After many years of engaging in a menial job, A.R. became frustrated, lost social status in his community and consequently developed poor self-image.

Despite the situation, A.R. managed to save some money to travel to Ghana to visit his extended family, friends and relatives for the first time. Upon his arrival in Ghana, he was given a hearty welcome. His family, friends and relatives in Ghana held him in a high esteem and congratulated him for earning an MBA degree in a Canadian university. For the 2 months he spent in Ghana, he regained his social status, as he was socially and culturally accepted by friends, relatives and the local communities he visited in Ghana. Since his first vacation visit to Ghana, he has continued to maintain ties with his family, friends, and relatives in Ghana. He listens to Ghanaian news regularly via social media you-tube, he sends remittances regularly to Ghana to invest in housing and follows Ghanaian politics on a regular basis. All these transnational engagements promote positive self-image for A.R., who now recognizes cross-border activities as essential to his self-worth in Canada.

The Significance and Relevance of Transnational Social Work

A.R.’s case demonstrates why transnational perspective is very important in social work profession in Canada and elsewhere in the world. A.R.’s case illustrates that transnational immigrants (transmigrants) struggle to settle and integrate in the destination country. There are many highly skilled immigrants, like A.R. who used to occupy higher social class in the country of origin prior to migration but are now occupy lower social status as their skills and qualifications are devalued in the destination country. In Canada, many immigrants like A.R. with higher educational qualifications are over-represented in menial jobs. It is worthy to note that occupational status of many immigrants like A.R. reflects structural inequalities engendered by systemic oppression (e.g. discrimination, racism, and exploitation) in the labour market and not necessarily their education levels. As such immigrants like A.R. are compelled to engage in menial employments which do not merit their qualifications. However, when these migrants maintain ties with their homeland by engaging in political, economic and social-cultural cross-border activities they attain social prestige in the country of origin. Thus, for many immigrants from the Global South to the Global North, their transnational experience is characterized by loss of social status in the destination country and gain of social status in the country of origin (Nieswand, 2011). However, the social work profession in Canada is yet to develop a focused understanding of the social injustices and systemic oppression that confront these transnational communities. Thus, to better understand the systemic oppression and needs of these transnational populations, Canadian social work education needs to research more on immigrant transnationalism.

One can imagine the life of A.R whose daily routine revolves around frequent exchanges of communications with families and friends in Ghana as well as travelling back and forth between Canada and Ghana. In these transnational exchanges, a social worker should understand that A.R.’s lived experiences would be preoccupied with numerous transnational exchanges rather than with issues in the Canadian community. Without recognizing the significance of transnational ties, a social worker will be worried that A.R.’s lack of community and civic participation in Toronto will compromise his ability to successfully integrate into the larger Canadian society. Understanding that these transitional exchanges enable A.R. to cope with the systemic oppression embedded in the Canadian society will help the social worker to understand the benefits of transnational ties, and consequently will allow the worker to offer culturally appropriate services for transnational populations. Further, A.R’s case can also remind us that some transnational populations are more likely to struggle to meet one of the basic fundamental needs in the Canadian society, while at the same time struggle to meet their familial and social obligations in the homeland (Firang, 2011). Some of the struggles faced by transnational populations include emotional distress and frustration as they strive to put down roots in the host country, while at the same time remit money and goods to meet familial and personal obligations in the homeland.

Social work practice with transmigrants will require different sets of practice skills and knowledge from traditional practice with immigrants and refugees. In the first place, social workers need to understand the elements that differentiate social work with transmigrants from that with traditional immigrants and ethnic minority groups in the host society. While the latter involves social work practice within a bounded nation-state, the former requires social work knowledge about immigrant issues that transcend national borders. Secondly, effective social work with transnational clients, such as A.R in Toronto, requires that social workers have a better understanding of the experience of international migration process, the distinct background characteristics of the transmigrant population, and the nature and frequency of transnational ties between the country of origin and destination. The latter is very important given that frequent transnational activities are important aspects of transmigrants’ daily experiences. Thus, social workers require knowledge about the nature of ongoing transnational ties among immigrants during their settlement process. Such knowledge can help social workers develop effective assessment tools, identify the problems confronting this population, and implement appropriate interventions.

An important transnational tie that social workers need to be aware of is the practice of remittances – sending money and goods to family and friends in the country of origin. Remittances are essential to transmigrants and their families left behind. Remittances enable transmigrants to invest in property and business in the country of origin while at the same time enable them to fulfil important familial and social obligation by taking care of other family members left behind in the homeland (Firang, 2011). Remittances have implications for transnational population with respect to their well-being in the destination country. In the first place, frequent remittances may force transnational immigrants to take on multiple jobs to mobilize enough resources to send to the homeland. While remittances obviously benefit immigrant families in the country of origin, the transmigrants and their families at the destination country are more likely to bear the burden of this practice. Engaging in multiple jobs for long working hours can present psychosocial problems - emotional distress and frustration - for transmigrants.

Frequent remittances can also have implications for transmigrants’ social needs, especially access to appropriate housing in the destination country. For instance, immigrants who send frequent remittances to their countries of origin may be forced to reside in low-cost rental housing in poor neighbourhoods in order to save money. In a situation like this, social work practice with transnational population can pose a dilemma for social workers. The dilemma occurs in a situation whereby the immigrant’s sense of obligation to send remittances to the country of origin conflicts with the priority of building self-sufficiency in the destination country. Thus, if a social worker discovers that a transmigrant family like A.R. in Toronto, is remitting regularly to meet the familial obligations in Ghana, while at the same time ignoring his children’s needs for appropriate housing in Toronto, a child protection social worker may file child protection case against the family.

At the same time social workers need to understand that transnational ties provide a number of strengths (advantages) for transmigrants. As A.R.’s case illustrates, ties with the homeland provide transmigrants, like A.R., with social recognition in the homeland as well as the social support networks they need to cope with life in Canada. Social workers need to understand that by sending remittances to their homelands, transmigrants seek to promote their self-worth and dignity in a fashion consistent with their own culture, and this self-worth and dignity are significant for integration into the host country. Unless social workers understand the transnational population’s social field, they may have an incomplete assessment of an immigrant family’s responsibilities and may offer inappropriate services for these population.


This article has demonstrated that in the era of globalization, the emergence of a population of migrants whose lives transcend across national borders, is important to Canadian social work research and practice. Social workers require a set of special practice skills that are grounded in evidence-based research and culturally competent practice – a different set of attitudes and beliefs about immigrant transnationalism- in order to effectively work with clients whose lives transcends across diverse national borders. For social workers dealing with tranmigrants like A.R in Toronto, culturally competent practice implies awareness of and sensitivity to immigrants’ homeland cultures (Devore & Schlesinger, 1999; Lum, 1999; Potocky-Tripodi, 2002; Tsang, Bogo & George, 2003), and the ability to adapt effective practice skills that are congruent with the norms, values and expectations of transmigrant clients.


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