Negotiating Ethnic Identity and Self-Identity in the Light of Cultural Change:  A Case Study of Liberian Refugees in Nova Scotia


Steve Crépeault



According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), resettlement from the country of asylum to a third host country is one of the three ‘durable solutions’ to what have been called the ‘refugee problem’ (UNHCR, 2000). To the refugee, resettlement is the opportunity to get a fresh start. Refugee lives have been academically examined since the Second World War, and since the 1990s, refugees became the center of a new field called ‘refugee studies’. Despite the increasing attention to refugees, the focus of study has been about migrations, resettlement, etc. (need research); however, little has been written about how refugees renegotiate their identity and deal with the cultural divide between them and their new host culture. While several academics have looked at how identity is constructed for migrant populations, very few have focused on the experiences of particular refugee groups in Canada.


The construction of identity has been the focus of several disciplines over the years. Anthropology looked at identity as a social form and especially experiences of shared identities (Campbell and Rew, 1999: ix), where the individual is reduced to an end to a mean. Sociology similarly sees it from this perspective as well. Sociology sees identity as a macro-political. There are variations but for the most part it is the same. Psychology sees identity as something individual created by the brain. Several factors affect the creation of identity such as employment as a source of primary identity for several countries (Campbell and Rew, 1999: x). In addition, gender, religion, ethnicity, nationality, (Ibid., 1999: ix) are also other lens in which identity has been analyzed.


In this thesis, I provide an account of the development and negotiation of identity among Liberian refugees resettling in Nova Scotia, Canada. My goal is to understand how they reshape their identity in light of the historical, structural, and individual factors. This research project aims to understand how Liberian refugees perceive themselves and creates, negotiate their new identity in the context of going in an area where there are very little infrastructure to help them foster a sense of their former identity.


Through most disciplines, refugees have been perceived as a problem. The stresses and strains of refugee lives have been well documented; however, the disciplines have mostly ignored the refugees’ “strengths and inventiveness of their responses” (Camino et al., 1994: xvi). In the case of resettlement, refugees can often be seen as potential economic assets as in Nova Scotia where the population has been migrating towards larger urban centers. In resettlement, refugees are perceived as by the population and government as the victims, a category of people in need of help.  


There is an obvious lack of cultural understanding of refugee populations from the point of view of the government and settlement agencies by judging the little literature available to these institutions. The patriarchal language used by these institutions reflects the relegation of the refugees as subjects who have no control on their own actions.

Canada is one of only ten countries which boast annual quotas on the number of refugees that can resettle within the borders (Colic-Peisker 2005). The small numbers of refugees that enter the country with the assistance of the government each year are negatively perceived with apprehension, fear, and suspicion. According to Castles (2004), resettled refugees “are accused of bringing poverty, disease and crime, of being terrorists, of taking our jobs, or sponging off welfare” (Castles 2004).


There are several stereotypical ways to perceive refugees: as threats to nations and security of nations, destined to be seen as negative economic agents that will need more social security money than they will ever gain, cannot integrate the Canadian society, need social and psychological services that is beyond what can be offered in Canada at reasonable costs. This research aims to change these perceptions.


In addition, the research aims to fill a gap in the literature about the experiences of Liberian refugees in Nova Scotia. Although there is some literature about refugees in Canada (see DeVoretz et al., 2005; Dyck et al. 2004; Lamba, 2003; Macklin, 1996; McLellan, 1996), most of them focus on large centers such as Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, and the few documents that focus on refugees in Nova Scotia do not target the Liberian population. Although the target of the population of Liberian refugees is fairly small in Halifax, I believe that their case can help to establish limited comparisons with other Sub-Saharan nations.


The purpose of this qualitative study is to understand the processes of change that the refugees must go through when resettling in a new country. By identifying how Liberian refugees adapt themselves to life in Canada, it is my hope that this research will add to the discussion on their current situation and create a political debate which would allow the government and NGOs to take proper actions and invite change in order to improve the services offered to the refugees not only after arrival, but after even they become Canadians. In Canada, sponsored refugees must fight several levels of discrimination when they resettle. I wish to explore how Liberian refugees are welcome in Canada, adapt to their new environment, and explore several layers to see how their situation can be improved politically at a policy level, socially, economically, and culturally