Welcome to Alberta

How rural communities are meeting the challenge of newcomers

By Marc Colbourne

When Gonzalo Camacho left behind his wife and young daughter in Colombia to come work in Brooks, in February of 2008, the weather wasn’t his only shock. “I was a married man and suddenly I was living with five other guys from my country,” he says. “I had to share a room. They gave us each a box with an air mattress. This is what we slept on. We didn’t have nothing—no winter clothes, boots, nothing. And we didn’t know where to find anything. One night we just went walking in the snow trying to find things. No one told us where anything was.”

The face of Alberta is changing. As employers increasingly look outside Canada for workers to meet their growing labour pressures, communities are being forced to respond to the evolving needs of their populations. Municipalities are rising to meet the challenges of a newly arrived workforce—some permanent, many with only temporary status—by finding creative ways to offer services while ensuring that programs are accessible.

When it comes to welcoming newcomers, Alberta’s rural communities face challenges that cities such as Edmonton and Calgary do not. Fewer dedicated services for newcomers, limited financial and human resources and a shorter history of dealing with difference can impact a smaller centre’s ability to address the issues. Building on such small-town strengths as tight social networks, a greater sense of volunteerism and strong community pride, however, many rural communities are beginning to see success. 

The City of Brooks began to experience a dramatic shift in population in 2000, when the local meatpacking plant started importing workers from outside Canada. This new, global workforce was comprised of immigrants, refugees and temporary foreign workers who hailed from such countries as Somalia, Sudan, Mexico, Colombia and the Philippines. City employees estimate that recent immigrants and temporary workers now account for a quarter of the current population of Brooks. They acknowledge, however, that an exact number is hard to determine, as Brooks is not often a direct destination for newcomers; many arrive in Toronto or Vancouver and only later find their way to southeastern Alberta. 

“We have a vision for our city,” says mayor Martin Shields. “In August we hosted the under-14 provincial soccer tournament. We definitely had the most diverse team on the field—but they were all playing under the Grasslands [Soccer Association] banner.” But while proud of his city’s growing diversity, the mayor acknowledges that much more needs to be done. 

“Separation has always been an issue,” agrees Lisa Tiffin, manager of Shared Services with the City of Brooks. “It may not always be because of any overt action or negative belief; there has just been this divide.” 

Mohammed Idriss, manager of Brooks & County Immigrant Services, perceives very real reasons behind this separation, with language barriers one of the most pervasive. Not only does a lack of English skills limit meaningful interactions and connections among community members, the language gap has implications in areas such as employment and awareness of and access to services.

“Many immigrants end up working in jobs where language ability and experience don’t matter,” Idriss says. “They get trapped there and are unable to find employment elsewhere. It’s not healthy for the integration of a community to have all their immigrants working in one location. There is also no incentive for anyone to socialize or form connections outside of their cultural group.”

The City of Brooks is working to address the language barriers faced by many of their new residents. Government-funded ESL classes are offered by Brooks Community Adult Learning Council and the Brooks campus of Medicine Hat College. The Newcomer Language Centre offers fee-for-service classes. “We are having a lot of success with our volunteer programs too,” says Idriss. “We hold conversation circles and coffee dates where we match up seniors and newcomers. These informal meetings are good chances for newcomers to improve their English and make community connections.” 

The face of Alberta is changing. Employers are increasingly looking outside Canada for workers.

Gonzalo Camacho feels, however, that the separation comes down to an even simpler reason: lack of time. “I came here without my wife and daughter,” he says. “All of my focus was on getting them here. I worked. I took overtime. I did everything I could to move up in my job and get a better one. I never thought about making friends or being a part of the community. I just wanted to do the right thing and have my family here with me. Until then, the guys I lived with were my family.”

Like Brooks, Grande Prairie too has seen a major influx of newcomers. Immigrants and temporary foreign workers have joined migrants from other provinces to meet ever-growing demand in the oil and gas sector. To help address new community members’ needs, the City formed a Welcoming and Inclusive Community committee led by the municipality’s Family & Community Support Services (FCSS). 

The committee’s first task was to connect recent immigrants and temporary foreign workers with the resources they needed to settle in Grande Prairie. Information on health and social services, education, recreation facilities, municipal services, shopping and entertainment was compiled into a plain-language resource guide. The municipality will soon translate this guide into French to help African newcomers. Plans are in the works for versions in other common immigrant languages, such as Spanish and Tagalog. 

While connecting newer residents to resources and services was an important first step, the committee recognized that this alone wouldn’t achieve their goal. The committee held multicultural events and encouraged participation from the greater community in hopes of building stronger connections among residents. “We held an event for the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination,” says FCSS supervisor Lisa Watson. “We hoped for a crowd but only 50 people showed up. We wondered if it was the right event, the right location. Our mapping project will help us plan better.” 

She explains that by using the postal codes of people who’ve accessed community services, the City will map out where newcomers live. The information will be used to identify where particular services should be offered or where community events should be held. Bus route information will be layered over the map to determine the accessibility of a location. The real promise in this exercise, however, lies in the conversations it sparked between recent arrivals to Grande Prairie and City staff.

“We held dialogue sessions with immigrants and temporary foreign workers,” says Watson. “It was an opportunity for them to tell us what we were missing. We had been putting on all of these events thinking we knew what was needed. We heard that they appreciated our efforts, but what they really wanted was more community support to host their own festivals. They are eager to share their culture with other residents.” 

The City heard this and is now planning ways to provide this support. Giving micro-grants to ethnocultural groups to host their own events is one possibility. Information gathered through the social-mapping exercise will also be made available to these groups to help in planning and ensuring an accessible venue.

Watson says the City and community organizations will also continue to provide services and host events—perhaps a repeat of the successful winter preparedness workshop hosted by the Grande Prairie Centre for Newcomers last fall. Gonzalo Camacho and his co-workers would have benefited from something similar that cold February of 2008.

Alberta’s rural communities face challenges cities do not. But they can also build small-town strengths.

Of course, creating a welcoming environment is not only about responding to needs as they arise. According to Brooks’s Mohammed Idriss, looking ahead to the future is key. “Don’t plan for today, plan for tomorrow,” he says. “Don’t just build a hockey arena; consider a multi-purpose arena where soccer, cricket and other sports popular in other countries can be played as well.”

Being proactive is something the town of Olds knows a bit about. In fact, the focus of much of their current work is on anticipating the needs of newcomers before immigrants even arrive. Olds is a major service centre for more than 40,000 people in the south-central region of the province, yet just 8,000 residents call it home. While Olds doesn’t have as many newcomers as Brooks or Grande Prairie, the town has recognized that it must be ready to attract and retain immigrants to meet its anticipated labour needs.

“We want to be prepared,” says Lesley Winfield, manager of Olds Municipal Library and former town councillor. “I went to a conference put on by the Central Alberta Economic Partnership and came back excited to put what I learned into practice. We have a dynamic and innovative community, so it wasn’t hard to get people around the table. We formed a committee, talked about the issues and got to work.”

The committee’s efforts have paid off. When a local employer wanted to bring in 26 workers from Mexico, he contacted the committee and asked for help. Welcome packages containing information about community resources, weather and cultural norms were prepared—in Spanish—and sent to the workers ahead of their arrival. The new employees arrived in Olds ready to work and knowledgeable about where to find any services they might need. Camacho was impressed when he heard about this: “All employers should do this. It would have helped me.”

Olds’s library is a hub in the community and has become an important meeting space for newcomers. The services provided here developed from needs identified by residents in Olds, but could easily be implemented in any town or city in Alberta. Newcomers wanting to learn English can do so using the library’s free language-learning software, Mango. According to Winfield, employers and community members wanting to bridge language gaps and build stronger connections with newcomers are also using this software to learn newcomers’ languages. There is even a Skype “living room” with a big-screen TV. “We wanted to give newcomers a homey, comfortable space to connect with their families back home,” says Winfield. “You don’t have to do big, expensive things. Little steps make a huge impact.”

Welcoming newcomers is a two-way street. Municipalities and long-time residents need to actively promote inclusiveness in the services they provide and in their daily interactions; newcomers need to step outside the comfort offered by their own ethnocultural groups. It’s a dynamic process requiring focus, intention and a willingness to adjust. 

Results are often best seen in subtle shifts in attitudes and everyday events. “You can see it’s working by going to a kid’s birthday party,” says Mohammed Idriss. “The second generation in our schools is breaking down barriers. They have their friends; they go to birthday parties and bring their parents. As the kids play, the parents talk and form friendships. This is what integration looks like.” 

Jeff Gerestein, inclusion coordinator with the City of Brooks, talks about the attitude shift in simple terms: “I grew up in Brooks. When the first group of Colombians arrived, everyone would stare as they walked down the street, wonder what was going on. Now, if we don’t see diversity in our streets, we think something is wrong. It’s normalized. And appreciated.”

Mayor Shields feels the City is making progress toward his vision of true integration: a community that works and plays together. He believes that any community in Alberta can realize the same vision if they are open to creative ideas.

“You never know where the next idea is going to come from,” he says. “I was at the bank and I saw these newcomers going behind the counter and picking up the phone. I asked about it and was told the bank was using a telephone translation-service. I thought: This could solve problems at our hospital. Sure enough, they’re using it now and the quality of service has gone through the roof!”

For Camacho, Brooks has changed from a place he came to work in four years ago to a place he is proud to call home. His employer supported his application for permanent residence through Alberta’s Provincial Nominee Program. After two-and-a-half long and difficult years, he was finally reunited with his wife and daughter. After taking ESL courses, his wife began work in an office this past September. His nine-year-old daughter quickly adapted to her life in Alberta and loves school. Camacho now has more time to enjoy what Brooks has to offer. 

“We love spending time together as a family,” he says. “We go out for supper. Play sports. And socialize with our neighbours who were born here. We have good friends. The City helped us feel comfortable here. We can always do more to help new people coming here, but it’s good now. It’s home.”

Originally from Newfoundland, Marc Colbourne is an Edmonton-based social worker and writer of fiction and non-fiction.


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