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WHAT BEGANS AS A FASINATION WITH HOW CULTURE impacts on mental health has turned into a quiet but determined activism on behalf of immigrants, refugees and other cultural minorities across Canada.

In the process, Professor Morton Beiser has gained widespread recognition – from policymakers, academics, the media and many immigrant communities – as one of the leading authorities on culture and mental health.

A professor of psychiatry at U of T, Beiser’s work is a blend of psychiatry, sociology and epidemiology that proves useful when investigating social issues linked to cultures in transition. Whether focused on Cambodian refugees or Native Canadians, Beiser’s research explores the challenges of integrating into the Canadian cultural mosaic.

As head of the Culture, Community & Health program at U of T and the university-affiliated Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Beiser leads a multi-disciplinary team that includes psychologists, medical sociologists, epidemiologists, demographers, an anthropologist, a nurse, doctoral students and post-doctoral fellows. The program has attracted more than $6 million in external research funding – including grants from the former Medical Research Council of Canada, now the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), and the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada – and several senior scientist awards.

Beiser’s leadership roles at U of T and at the Toronto Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration & Settlement (CERIS – see sidebar) are the culmination of a career that has taken him all over North America and to Paris and Senegal.

His fascination with how culture interacts with mental health began during his training in psychiatry at Duke University in the 1960s. During those early days of the civil rights struggle, he was able to observe psychological effects of racism on both its perpetrators and its victims. Later, as a junior faculty member at Harvard, he carried out studies in Africa which illustrated the health-damaging effect of racial oppression.

Since then, Beiser has engaged in studies that explore challenges faced by cultural communities in Canada. His 10-year study of the resettlement of Southeast Asian refugees who arrived in Canada in the 1980s culminated in his recent and acclaimed book, Strangers at the Gate: The ‘Boat People’s’ First Ten Years in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 1999).

Although results from this study have appeared among Beiser’s more than 150 scientific publications, Strangers at the Gate presents a bit of a departure. Through a unique mix of statistics and case studies, this groundbreaking work challenges stereotypes about immigrants, and presents the information in a form that is accessible to the general public.

His work with the Southeast Asian refugees is just one of Beiser’s many projects. Another is a series of studies on First Nations schoolchildren in Canada and the U.S. to uncover reasons for differences in mental health, self-esteem and school achievement as compared to non-native children. Beiser’s plans include a study of the health and development of immigrant and refugee children in Canada. "This study is very important," he says, "because it aims to fill in the cultural gaps of a similar study by Statistics Canada and Human Resources Canada focused on Canadian kids in general."

Beiser’s work is rapidly gaining interest in immigrant communities. Recently, both the Tamil and Ethiopian communities in Toronto asked Beiser to study their unique challenges in Canada. "The fact that these communities came to me is a very important turning point," says Beiser. "They’re taking the initiative to push for more attention to their mental health needs, and I think that’s terrific."

Asked if he believes his achievements have helped shape public policy, Beiser chuckles quietly and shrugs. "In the end, I don’t know what really makes a difference. It’s difficult to get policymakers’ attention and help them understand that this is a long-term investment that has no quick fix."

But he sees hope in the sometimes surprising ways that academic research can have an impact, citing the example of U of T historian Harold Troper’s book, None is Too Many, which chronicles Canada’s refusal to admit Jewish refugees prior to and in the early days of World War II.

"In 1981," he recalls, "in the midst of the refugee crisis in Southeast Asia, employment and immigration minister Ron Atkey was given a draft of this book for some weekend reading. After reviewing it he said, ‘I don’t want to be another minister who said, none is too many’ and he made the decision to admit an unprecedented 50,000 Southeast Asian refugees to Canada." Putting this episode in perspective, Beiser reflects, "I’ll try anything that might make an impact on policy. Books. Radio. Whatever it takes. As long as the message is honest and based on real data and facts."

– Althea Blackburn-Evans

M orton Beiser is the founding director of the four-year-old Toronto Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration & Settlement (CERIS). One of four centres across Canada, collectively known as the Metropolis project, CERIS conducts policy-directed research on immigration and resettlement issues. "The idea with the whole project," says Beiser, "was to organize a network of research centres to better inform policymakers and help them make better decisions." Funded by several government departments in collaboration with SSHRC and Immigration and Citizenship Canada, the Toronto centre includes three universities – Ryerson Polytechnic University, U of T and York University.

CERIS funds research in a number of different areas that affect immigration and settlement, including housing, labour, health, the economy, education and the justice system. Public education is also high on the centre’s agenda. In 1998, under a partnership agree- ment between CERIS and radio station CJRT, Beiser wrote and recorded a 12-part radio series dealing with immigration issues which featured the work of centre scholars and first-hand stories of CERIS community affiliates. The series has been re-broadcast on Alberta public radio and, in a package of recorded cassettes, continues to be used by a variety of community agencies.

In the wake of that success, Beiser is leading the production of a 10-lesson program about immigration which will be introduced into the curricula of grades 4 and 5 classrooms across Canada in the fall of 2000.

A unique aspect of the Toronto centre is the emphasis on community involvement. "We feel that it’s important to have input from the people who are going to be affected by our activities – including immigrant and refugee communities, service providers, settlement agencies and members of the policy community." As a result of this vision, both the management board and advisory council of CERIS in Toronto include members from these communities. "That way," says Beiser, "all of the projects we select are deemed to be academically excellent but also to have real relevance to the communities they will affect.

"Ultimately," says Beiser, "the goal of the centre is to communicate the ‘real’ story of immigration to the public. We’ve had a succession of governments tell us that immigration is important to Canada – that we need immigrants because of the demographics, the economy and so forth – but there isn’t a lot of objective, research-based information that is communicated to the public about immigration and its effects. What does tend to get out is all the explosive, negative stuff and these become the big stories. I think those are the aberrations."

University of Toronto Office of the Vice-President, Research and Associate Provost