Let’s be honest with ourselves; we are all New Canadians. Only Canada’s First Nations have legitimate claim of being first to the party. And while it is crucial we acknowledge and reconcile Canada’s colonialist past and the ongoing, systemic barriers that far too many Canadians face to this day, let us also recognize that Canada’s tradition of welcoming newcomers is the foundation of our strength as a national community.
This tradition has carried on through the way Canadians from coast to coast to coast have opened their hearts and neighbourhoods, offering refugees from the war in Syria a place to belong. Individuals have donated time, become private sponsors, and even created pop-up organizations that serve the needs of these newcomers ranging from clothing drives to translation. Traditional settlement service providers have taken on new tasks and forged new partnerships in support of the best integration experience for both new Canadians and their new neighbours.
Perhaps the most fundamentally Canadian story to emerge from this collaborative national project to welcome these newcomers to their new home has been the way Canada’s Vietnamese community has mobilized to sponsor Syrian refugees to Canada. Having fled a country at war, many Vietnamese-Canadians can sympathize with the experience of being displaced, but also of finding a new place to belong.
“You come to a new country, a new culture, there will be many differences compared to what they’re used to…. With our help, I’m sure that they will settle and integrate a lot faster.”
It’s also worth noting how Canadians have come together across social, economic and geographic barriers to contribute to the project. The very process of partnering and sponsoring Syrian refugees and helping them settle has forged new bonds and strengthened ties of community between citizens, organizations and government. WelcomeHomeTO had the incredible privilege of hosting a first-ever conversation about systematic settlement challenges where government, government-funded agencies, civic groups and newcomers participated as equals with shared purpose.
These new partnerships and understandings have resulted in some extraordinary innovations. Not long ago, the idea of government agencies partnering with grassroots organizations to collaborate in the provision of settlement services was unheard of. The only role for citizens was to offer money or volunteer with existing organizations; now, we have pop-up clothing stories where everything from time to space and working hours is donated. We have Apps that help these new Canadians find Arabic-speaking health service providers or the best place to get Syrian bread.
At the centre of all this activity, of course, are the Syrian newcomers themselves. While the war in their homeland has left scars, these new Canadians are not defined by the conflict. More than refugees, Syrian newcomers are farmers and accountants, mothers and fathers, poets and athletes, engaged citizens and entrepreneurs. What they bring to the table is as unique and valuable as the contributions of all newcomers that have defined Canada for nearly two centuries.
Communities are defined as much by the uniqueness of their members as the common bonds and values they share. A common belief Canadians new and old have expressed time and again is the recognition that diversity is strength, not a threat. That strength enriches our culture, engages and empowers citizens and becomes a source of innovation. As Canada’s community is constantly evolving, we are quick to adapt to shifting global realities.
Which is why other nations are looking to Canada as model for how to integration better. They have recognized there is something happening here that is happening nowhere else and are anxious to learn our secret.
Except it’s no secret. Canada, at its best, is a place to belong, a home that we build together. When we empower each other to be at our best, the whole community benefits.
This is why it is so natural for Canadians to welcome those displaced by conflict to find a new place to belong here.
Quite simply, this is what being Canadian is all about.
Craig Carter-Edwards is a founder of WelcomeHomeTO.