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Family photos are used here for purely illustrative purposes. None of the participants' quotes are meant to be attributed to anyone seen here.
Over this past school year, I have completed a project for the New Canadian Centre (NCC) creating a “living history” of the immigrant community in Peterborough. It has been a wonderful experience for me: from getting involved with local organizations, to completing ethnographic research and, most of all, getting to know some really amazing people in the Peterborough area. The project has revealed within me a buried love for humanity. The research itself discloses several interesting challenges and opportunities in Peterborough for local immigrants.
My methodology involved getting in touch with participants through a contact at the NCC and through referrals from other participants. I would sit down with each person for a taped 30-minute interview. From this interview, I would write profiles about each person for the NCC’s website and based two podcasts on prominent themes.
Those prominent themes are: the importance of language acquisition, difficulties finding employment, the importance of support networks, family legacies of migration, the friendliness of Peterborough residents, the natural beauty of Canada and the return on investment of a little bit of support from the government. This article will be a cursory overview of my research and more in-depth analysis can be found in my final report.
The NCC is the hub of the immigrant community in Peterborough. It forms a catalyst for many individuals who would not have united otherwise. This truly multicultural environment welcomes the experiences of all cultures and unites them under a banner of inclusion and acceptance. In Canada, we pride ourselves on our multicultural policies yet I have never experienced a situation so thoroughly representative of as many cultures as at the NCC.
One participant recalled, “I think everybody is happy with the NCC. Not every city has the same centre for immigrants. I remember where we lived previously; they don’t have the New Canadian Centre. I don’t know. You can’t stay on the street and put a sign that says ‘I speak this language,’ and maybe someone says they speak that language. It’s hard. But here it’s much easier.”
Integration into a new culture can be stressful experience, one that is mitigated by the support provided by many actors including friends, family, government agencies and fellow immigrants. Fellow immigrants can provide an environment that is perceived as more forgiving of mistakes.
Several participants expressed the concern that if they made a mistake in front of a native Canadian, they would be embarrassed and shy away from such an experience. It is both the programs and the inclusive environment of the NCC that provide support for immigrants programmatically and emotionally.
One of the services participants deemed most important is English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. The process of learning a new language can be strife with difficulties, emotional burdens and stress when a newcomer is faced with the imperative of living in a country that doesn’t speak their native tongue.
A participant expressed this as “feeling that you cannot express properly your thoughts, your feelings. The feeling that people cannot understand you. As a result you can live two ways. One way you can live in your community and speak your own language. Or you can meet these painful experiences and continue to learn English, improve your pronunciation and learn to communicate with local people.”
There is conflict between integrating wholeheartedly into a culture and remaining comfortable with people who speak your own language. This is reconciled in a myriad of ways in order to find balance between the two. How do you join a new culture while retaining your old one? This is one challenge facing immigrants everywhere.
“There has to be more programs that help people from other nationalities assimilate without compromising their beliefs and their culture,” said one participant.
Yet there is no one prescribed way of doing this. Immigrant communities and individuals come up with their own innovative and amazing ways to do such a thing; diaspora communities in Toronto for instance. Or in smaller communities like Peterborough, we can see a hybrid society of immigrants and locals working together to provide support. Involvement in a community of other newcomers who are experiencing similar things makes a considerable difference in the comfort level and emotional security of newcomers. The fear of judgment and of making mistakes with native Canadians is not so present when interacting with new Canadians.
Despite this, one of the things I heard repeatedly was that Peterborough residents were very friendly. When participants overcame their trepidation at talking to a Peterborough native, they found Canadians were tolerant and accepting of their mistakes.
One shared, “And the people nice. Different. When I came to the store, any store, they try to help. They heard that my English is not good and that I’m an immigrant. They try to help me. They smile. They don’t say, ‘Go away! What do you want?’ Everyone here tried help, and have compassion, to understand me.”
Another problem, less easily resolved, is issues with finding employment in one’s field of training. It is a problem for fellow students and myself but many immigrants to Canada also feel it. Participants who immigrated after completing post-secondary education all expressed difficulty with finding jobs in their fields. They each had a degree in their field or training in some regard that was not recognized under Canadian standards. They were each posed with the dilemma of accepting an unskilled job outside of their field or recompleting courses they were already certified in.
Economic issues like this are hard to reconcile. From the policy standpoint, Canada would like to accept the “best” immigrants it can – that is, the most highly educated. However, there is a gap between this sentiment and integrating them into the workforce to the best use of their training. It’s an issue with no simple answer, although certainly more intelligent people than myself have speculated on it.
Peterborough has an interesting demography with steady rates of foreign-born immigration, post-secondary student immigration and high rates of youth emigration. In my opinion, this makes for an interesting locus for analysis. Paradoxically, one of the most important drivers of migration to and from Peterborough is employment opportunity. Research is needed and is being completed into reasoning out this conundrum.
Organizations like the NCC help with the tricky process of integrating into Canadian culture, but several critiques can be made of the structural model for immigration services. The government of Canada arranges services for immigrants to be administered through partner organizations like the NCC. The funding for services is given to these partner organizations based on proposals pitched or tenders applied for. Independent donations and other creative revenue streams (e.g. the United Way) must finance any services not approved for government funding.
Resultantly, local organizations are more in tune with the specific needs of the community. However, this also results in an inconsistency of services offered between partner organizations, tenuous streams of income and the redirection of labour needed to apply for this funding.
The provision of immigrant services becomes half charity- and half government-funded under this system. This arguably marks a step toward neoliberal shrinking of the government and reliance on free market principles for necessary services. However, the immigrants who are the most affected by these changes are the ones without a voice in the matter. Many do not have citizenship and cannot vote, and now, with new policies like the Fair Elections Act and the new Citizenship Bill, it will become even harder for new Canadians to voice their concerns.
Many immigrants are in highly vulnerable positions in terms of employment, residence status, and other regards. Policy that vindicates and makes life more difficult for immigrants is disgusting in my opinion. The Fair Elections Act and Citizenship Bills are components of a slow erosion of immigrant rights, the consequence of which is higher rates of deportation and detention (for more information on that, look up the End Immigration Detention Network on Facebook).
In spite of these larger shifts in Canadian immigration, the participants in my research were largely positive about their experiences and expressed affection for Canada. Moreover, most regarded their immigration experience as highly rewarding.
One participant said, “It’s personal growth. It’s enriching yourself. And then when you go back, you enrich your environment. So, I recommend for everyone to get out of your comfort zone and experience something enriching for you, contributing there and getting enriched, and then sharing your enrichment. I think that’s what the whole global village experience is about. What I learn here is no way more or less than what I learned back home in Kuwait, India or Canada.”
My own family has a history of immigration on both my mother and father’s side. My mother’s parents both emigrated independently of each other from Great Britain. My father’s family immigrated to Canada when he was a child from South Africa after stopping in Ireland for five years.
Immigration has been an underlying narrative my whole life. At times I would watch while my family helped relatives come over from South Africa and Ireland, or help my great-grandmother travel back and forth from Canada to South Africa despite being over 90 years old.
Even with my friends in high school, we looked like the typical multicultural photo in government pamphlets. Most had a rich family history of immigration: Israel, Iran, Kenya, Korea, Britain, Bosnia and more. My own future aspirations include wanting to experience the world by doing development work, the undercurrent of migration streams by.
Immigration has been a constant presence in the background of my life and it’s been a privilege to explore the topic further through the research and interviews I have conducted.
For more information on my research, I will be publishing my final report online when it is finished. Keep an eye on my Twitter @AyeshaBarmania for a link to that.
I will also be presenting my data at the Community Innovation Forum on April 3, so swing by for a chat if you’re free. If you would like to reach the New Canadian Centre, they are located at 221 Romaine St., Peterborough, and you can find more information about them and their services at www.nccpeterborough.ca.
My previous podcast can be heard at https://soundcloud.com/ayesha-barmania/peterborough-immigration.
I will be airing a second podcast on April 9, on Trent Radio CFFF 92.7 at 11:30am, so tune in for that!