Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Immigrants Find Challenges Aplenty in Manitoba

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, November 20 / 17

Zack Gross

Art Linkletter, the old comedian now long since deceased, made his fortune with a radio program called “Kids Say the Darnedest Things!”  He would interview young children on a range of subjects and they would prove time and again how insightful, or at least cute, they were.  We also, through his show, learned a lot from what the kids had to say about ourselves and our society.

Kids are still smart and interesting, but we now have a new group of people whose observations and reactions can bring a smile to our faces or even a knowing nod every once in a while.  I want to share with you some of the comments I’ve had from immigrants I have met with in my work, but also some that I’ve read about in on-line blogs.

I admitted in a previous column that I’ve embarrassed myself by the assumptions I’ve made about immigrants I’ve met or thought that I’d met.  Several times I’ve had appointments with recent immigrants from Africa and the Middle East – people looking for work in my field.  My assumption has been that they may be from parts of the world that my organization works in carrying out aid projects, but that they have little knowledge beyond that.

Instead, I have found that most are at least as well educated as I am and have years of experience.  It is conflict beyond their control that has put them in the position they are in.  If I had the funding to hire them, it would happen – or if I were to ever retire, they would be candidates to take my position. 

My greatest embarrassment was approaching a black man at a Conference and asking him where he immigrated from, only to find out he was an umpteenth generation Canadian from Nova Scotia, part of the contingent of descendants of slaves who came to our country from the United States, in the years from the Revolutionary War to the US Civil War.  Oops!  And I’m just a first generation Canadian, a child of parents who escaped war and revolution in Europe a hundred years ago.

Back to today’s world and especially the early winter we have been “enjoying”.  As Manitobans, we like to brag about how it doesn’t bother us to endure winter for half of each year.  For new immigrants, it is a painful shock!  I am teaching a course at the University of Winnipeg and one-third of my thirty-six students are international, from countries in Africa and Asia. 

That first really cold day, a student who arrived in Canada the first week of September after a young lifetime in Southern Africa, came to class with what could only be described as “arctic wear”.  He was surprised to see most of the class with jackets and some still wearing shorts.  I counselled him that if you put all your warm clothes on in late October, you will lose the psychological advantage of “gearing up” when the really cold, snowy weather arrives.

I asked my newly arrived students one day what they had discovered about people since arriving in Manitoba.  Generally, every young person had had only good experiences, finding us friendly and helpful.  They really appreciated that people would take the time to help them as immigrants or international students really do feel lost upon arrival.  The College where I teach had held several welcome days that included pizza, cinnamon buns and other goodies – and that was truly the highlight for many newcomers.

For some who arrive from troubled situations, for example areas of conflict and refugee camps, they are still caught up in their past bad experiences.  It is interesting to hear their stories, and that is exactly what they need and want, someone to take the time to listen.  I see that, while the trauma may not ever entirely leave their consciousness, time, experience and success in their new surroundings does alleviate their anxiety.

When we talk about culture in my class, I ask the international students to tell the rest of us what their Canadian experience has been like – what has surprised them about us.  I also read out the results of surveys and interviews done across the country with students on this topic.  What always gets a good laugh is how newcomers are struck with awe about “Roll Up the Rim”.  There is no equivalent overseas.

While they think we are a bit crazy about the Tim’s contest, they are impressed that we line up in an orderly fashion, sometimes five times a day, to get our red and yellow cardboard cups, partly to enjoy our caffeine fix, and partly in the hope of winning a cookie, donut or fancy new vehicle.

People are people the world over.  Manitoba’s current and future growth, not only in population but in our economy, is predicated on immigration.  Embracing our diversity and learning from it is the only way that we will all prosper and live in harmony.

Zack Gross is a former Executive Director of Brandon’s The Marquis Project and now co-ordinates outreach for Fair Trade Manitoba.

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