A Snapshot of New Beginnings in Canada

It's been almost forty years since Elena Whyte landed in Ottawa on a frosty January day and set out to start a new life. The years since then have not erased the memories of what she saw out of the airplane window as she touched down on an icy tarmac; the "Mongolian tundra" as she describes it, replete with pluming chimneys and snow-covered tree tops, was a sharp contrast to the balmy Venezuelan climate she had left behind. With 2 young children, a husband in wait, an undergraduate degree, and plenty of hopes and dreams for the future, Elena had only an idea of the challenges that lay ahead and the people and places that would help her and her children adapt to life in Canada.

Elena's story is unique to her but familiar to the estimated15 million people who have immigrated to Canada since Confederation. The last decade alone has seen over 2 million immigrants of all classes settle into new lives with the majority – 87% according to Statistics Canada – opting for this country's largest urban centres in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia. However, sheer numbers alone don't make the experience of uprooting and resettling in a strange land any easier. Although Canada enjoys the reputation of being one of the most hospitable and desirable countries in the world newcomers still face many obstacles in becoming part of the multicultural lattice that Canada ardently promotes.

Taking time out of their advanced English LINC (Language and Instruction for Newcomers to Canada) course at Graybridge Malkam, an Ottawa-based company specializing in language training, diversity and intercultural issues, Aditi Dilip Patel and Aurora Petrica discussed their personal experiences of immigrating to Ottawa.

Aurora Petrica arrived in Canada from Romania 18 months ago with her twin sons to join her husband. Despite moving to Ottawa as a trained chemist, she found few job openings in her field: "I studied chemistry and physics, but I don't find many opportunities in my field. Immigrants are someone in their countries, but when we come here we are nothing. We need to continue in our profession. If I don't find a job in my field, I might move to Toronto".

"It's hard to find jobs, that's the only thing (difficulty),it takes time", agrees Aditi Dilip Patel, 24,who arrived in Ottawa this past August from a small town in the Indian province of Gujarat to join her husband who was already settled in Ottawa.

Many immigrants are faced with the same dilemma as Aurora and Aditi; they are highly-educated and skilled individuals who have been drawn to the country with the hope of finding meaningful work. Disillusionment sets in when they come face to face with the reality of the Canadian job market; "If I take just any job so I can make money, I won't have time to build a career in my profession", says Aurora. Without Canada-specific work experience, employers are often reluctant to hire newcomers and so they drift between unemployment and underemployment. Aurora is fortunate since her husband can support her while she continues to look for work in her profession.

Beyond the frustrating and stressful process of job-hunting, many new Canadians eventually face the challenge of raising children in Canada. The struggle between maintaining the cultural identity of their heritage while raising children in the Canadian multi-cultural environment can present an array of complications.

"At the family level the difficulties of cultural adaptation become more pronounced; when the social structures and norms clash between Canadian ideals and those of your native country, there is an upheaval of cultural balance and identity", says Elena Whyte. This cultural collision manifests itself frequently in the relationship between parents and 1stgeneration Canadian children. Elena has raised three children in Canada and found that "the individualism and women's rights encouraged within Canadian culture created a constant struggle between my daughter and I."

Aditi remarked that there is a strong pressure within Indian communities in Canada to maintain traditional family structures and gender roles: "We have a custom that women are not allowed to talk to elderly men in the presence of other men in the family. Some people still believe this even though they are here in Canada. It affects the women in the family because everything outside the home is free to them. But at home, they feel that they are not free, so it affects them." Yet Aditi's family and in-laws are very “liberal", and she feels fortunate to not be affected by familial tensions such as these.

Most newcomers experience stress and economic hardship to varying degrees and they require support to help them move beyond this difficult initial stage. Aditi and Aurora agree that immigrant-serving organizations are essential to successful integration and the Ottawa area provides an enormous amount of support: "People are cooperative, you can find anything you need, and the support systems are there," says Aditi. Aurora finds such organizations essential to her adaptation: "My community (Romanian)is too small here in Ottawa, my friends are my classmates. I went many times to my local church, but they did not help me. I preferred to ask my teachers here at LINC; my teachers and classmates helped me when I asked".

For Elena, returning to University to pursue a Master’s degree was one of best ways to establish relationships with locals, as school provided the one-on-one contact essential in forming new bonds. "Canadians are like their winters" says Elena, "they are cold on the outside but once you break through that shell, they are incredible people, and my experience at Carleton University helped me to discover this".

Over the years, Elena has found work with a handful of the hundreds of immigrant-serving organizations that operate across Canada, many of which are staffed by former newcomers. For Elena, working for these types of organizations was initially less of an altruistic decision than it was economic: "I was offered jobs given my language skills and because I had completed a diploma in events coordination." But she has become more involved in these type of activities over the years and it has become a part of her life.

"Philanthropy is a truly Canadian characteristic" says Elena, "and most of the time immigrants have only the time and funds to help our own families and communities". With Citizenship and Immigration Canada having made a commitment to admit another 240,000 new permanent residents into the country, immigrant-serving organization will continue to be much sought after services.

Now firmly rooted in the charming village of Wakefield Quebec, Elena pursues her artistic passion and talents and says she feels "truly Canadian when I think to myself that anything is possible". As Canadians constantly struggle to define who they are as a nation– usually by identifying who they aren't – it is evident that the diversity of Canadian citizens and the richness of their heritage is a key element of this collective identity. Elena, Aditi and Aurora can all testify that there are many stumbling blocks created by the fusion of elements in what Elena calls "the best cultural experiment on the planet". Yet, all three are optimistic about their futures and enamoured with the country they now call home.

Mara Munro is a recent graduate of McGill University and is currently working on contract with the Centre for Intercultural Learning.