Canada welcomes about 225,000 immigrants every year, and according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, about 40 percent of these newcomers settle in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) where the total population is 5.5 million. (The city proper has 2.48 million residents.) Fifty percent of Torontonians were born outside of Canada and thirty percent of the residents are recent immigrants. Over 140 languages are spoken. Between 2001 and 2006 Toronto, the provincial capital, took in about 55,000 immigrants annually.
(www.toronto.ca/toronto_facts/index.htm) Many newcomers have relatives or friends already living in the area to help them through the adjustment period, however those new arrivals as well as others without ready contacts need assistance to live in the new culture. CultureLink Settlement Service is a non-profit organization in Toronto directed toward helping newcomers find their way. Their brochure states: "CultureLink is dedicated to facilitating the independence and full participation of newcomers in Toronto's diverse community." Funding comes from the Federal Government via Citizenship and Immigration Canada, The City of Toronto, the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration, Service Canada, the United Way and a few other donors. Last year this organization had a budget of $2,239,935. (www.culturelink.net - annual report.)
History - The idea for CultureLink sprang from the successful settlement of Indo-Chinese refugees (boat people) from Vietnam during 1979-1980s. Most of those immigrants were brought to Canada under "private sponsorship" by faith groups and community organizations. In my community our church members rented an apartment for a family to use for a year, furnished it with odds and ends from members, helped the adults find jobs and free language instruction, taught them how to get around to perform necessary tasks, taught them to use our health care system, helped settle the children into schools, enabled them to practice English and introduced them to social groups in the community. The Canadian Government recognized the benefit of providing one-on-one assistance and began to fund agencies such as CultureLink that could provide similar individual assistance to new arrivals. At a conference in 2007, 240 delegates from across Canada including staff and management from Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Service Provider organizations such as CultureLink, and invited guests met in Vancouver to share experiences and network in order to plan for improved newcomer services. The late Elizabeth Gryte began her career as an ESL (English as a second language) teacher but saw the multitude of problems of immigrants. She became Director of Settlement Programs, Ontario Region, Citizenship and Immigration, Canada and is credited with being the motivator for today's insightful programs for newcomers across the nation and for founding CultureLink's Host program in 1988--the agency's flagship program. She also lectured abroad about strategies for integrating newcomers into different environments and cultures.
Service Providers and Facilities - CultureLink is governed by a volunteer Board of Directors. According to the April financial report, there are forty-two staff members who serve clients in thirty languages. Some staff members engage in one-on-one consultations with newcomers, some train and monitor the hundreds of volunteers who provide individual assistance to the recent arrivals. CultureLink services are free to newcomers who have arrived in Canada within the past three years. Volunteers are recruited through notices in Toronto Public Library bulletins, schools and faith and community service organizations. Rubeen of the Host Program described those who choose to volunteer: They are often people who were immigrants at one time, people who have lived in another country and realize the hardships of adjusting in the new place, people who like to make friendships with individuals from other countries. In addition to the space at the home office, Unit 301, 2340 Dundas Street West, Toronto, activities take place in branch libraries, schools, community centres and other facilities in the city.
Settlement Workers meet to plan activities.
Volunteer selection and training - Volunteers provide a short biography and references. They are required to take one or more orientation classes.
In the first class volunteers learn about Canada's immigration overview and that immigrants are chosen in four categories: because they are skilled workers needed to fill the labour market; they are successful business persons with funds to invest and experiences in running businesses; they come into the country as family class immigrates who will join their relatives and are guaranteed support by the family; or they are refugees fleeing persecution.
The volunteers learn about the four stages of culture shock: Stage One lasting one to six months - Newcomers are geared to change and challenge, happy to be in Canada, live at an accelerated pace, may experience numbness and shock. Stage Two lasting six months - They may be depressed, discouraged about finding a job, discouraged about language difficulties, have an unrealistic view of their home country, feel guilt about family left behind, and may experience loss of memory, irritability, feelings of loss, disorientation. It is important to listen and empathize and try to help the newcomer normalize activity. Stage Three lasting one to two years. This is a period of slow recovery when they accept situations and limitations, make plans for the future, gain language proficiency, gain meaningful work and integration takes place. Stage Four comes in two to five years or may not happen until the second generation. Their integration is complete.
The volunteer is then matched with a newcomer of the same sex and approximate age. The first meeting takes place at CultureLink Head Office under the supervision of a Host Worker and then the newcomer and the volunteer agree to see each other for a couple of hours weekly over the next three to six months. Volunteers are reminded that their new friend will know what help they need, and the volunteer should direct activities to answer those needs. During the visits the volunteer is expected to offer friendship by taking the newcomer to community activities and events that will introduce the person to Canadian culture, to visits with doctors, dentists and social service agencies, to interpret Canadian customs, offer language support and practice, to act as interpreter when needed, to introduce the newcomer to the banking system and shopping sources, to help the newcomer find familiar foods or clothing, and to introduce them to the job market.
Case Workers match immigrants to volunteer hosts.
The second orientation course deals with learning what resources are available in the community and learning how to teach the new arrival to use them. For example volunteers learn how to look for an apartment; how to look for a job in Toronto; how to phone about an error in a Department store bill; how to get experience as a volunteer; how to find childcare; how to help the person research education opportunities; and what free family sports and other activities are available. They are shown how to find listings of cultural and community events and shown opportunities to follow their particular interests. There is opportunity to review case studies and discuss in class what services the case study families would need. A staff person is always available by phone to offer guidance to the volunteer and expects to get periodic reports about the newcomer's progress. At the end of the term, volunteers meet with staff to review their experiences. An official from Citizenship and Immigration Canada is present to evaluate the success of the session.
I asked Eman, Host Program Worker, to describe some experiences of volunteers she'd assisted. She remembered the enthusiasm of the newcomer mother who was paired with a woman who owned a large house with an outdoor pool. The two adults enjoyed the garden and loved to visit while the newcomer mother's eight-year-old son swam in the pool. Such a treat on a hot day! And then there was a young volunteer whom she'd paired with a newcomer bride expecting her first baby. They went together for check-ups at the obstetrician's office, and when the expectant mother was told to limit her activity, they cooked together. They became such fast friends that when the baby was born the young volunteer felt like she'd gained a little brother. One volunteer said she'd had the fright of her life when her newcomer parents phoned saying that their teenage son was at the police station, and would she accompany them there to find out what had happened. With great trepidation they approached the duty officer at the division office. It turned out to be a minor misdemeanor, which the volunteer explained, using vocabulary she knew the parents would understand. After a scolding, the boy was sent home with his parents and a much relieved volunteer.
In 2007 I began to volunteer at CultureLink intending to become a leader of the practice conversation circles, however the Host Worker persuaded me to enter the Host Program. My matched friend was a very active grandmother from Russia who spoke halting English. Galina was a widow, had immigrated to Israel and then to Canada to be a live-in caregiver for her four-year old grandson while her daughter and son-in-law worked. Having immigrated a few years earlier, the young parents had researched well and chosen to buy a house in an area of the city that they believed would have the best daycare, schools and parks. Galina was attending English classes twice a week, but her classmates were younger, and the daughter felt that most of all her mother needed a friend. That turned out to be an easy assignment for me. On several early visits, after we'd dropped off the grandson at his nursery school, we looked at a picture book containing illustrations of the art in a Moscow museum. Galina hesitatingly told about the artists whose works were pictured, and she told me stories about the sitters shown in the portraits. With the pictures in front of us, I could point to objects and teach her new English words. At a restaurant she learned to order from a menu and learned how to calculate the tip; she learned to use a bank machine. We searched the food market for spices so that she could cook a favourite recipe. I got lists of Russian and Jewish group meeting where she might find friends from home. We took in a free ball-room dance lesson at the library. On nature walks she was touched to find daisies, snapdragons and Queen Anne's lace that also grew near the country place she missed in Russia.
Usually I went to get Galina by car or subway, but eventually I felt she could come on her own by subway and meet me in front of the drug store at the corner of King and Yonge Streets. She had my cell phone number in case it was needed. I arrived early as agreed and waited. A half-hour passed. I began to check my watch more often. It was nearly an hour after our agreed meeting time, and I was beginning to worry, but I had no way to reach her. Then my cell phone buzzed and a man's voice said, "I'm calling on my phone for your friend, Galina. She in front of the drug store and wonders where you are." It turned out that she'd forgotten the street and had exited from the subway at Queen Street instead of King Street. I asked the man to tell her what had happened and to wait there until I arrived. When we connected fifteen minutes later, Galina was very upset. She said she'd been so frightened to be lost in a new city. Finally she'd seen a man talking on his phone and asked him to call me. I pointed out that she had managed very well; that her English was adequate to solve the problem. She need never worry about being stuck and not getting help again. We continued our journey together as planned and we continue to enjoy activities together. I'm sure we will remain friends for years to come.
Newcomer Youth Centre - Located at the CultureLink headquarters, this program serves youth from age 14 to 24 who are new to Canada. Staff and volunteers provide academic support, friendship groups, artistic groups and special events. One-on-one assistance is available to youth looking for work and housing, education opportunities and job training or dealing with immigration issues. The September calendar of youth events included weekly résumé writing classes, drop-in sports, table tennis practice, a cooking seminar, the painting club and two computer classes.
Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) Classes - This program works with The Toronto Catholic District School Board to provide English as a Foreign Language classes. These classes include reading, listening, grammar and writing lessons in preparation for this language examination required to enter university.
Settlement & Education Partnership in Toronto - The SEPT workers serve in conjunction with several junior, middle and secondary schools. They have many success stories to tell, but they wanted me to know about the NOW (Newcomer Orientation Week) launched in 2007, as a pilot project of Citizenship & Immigration Canada and The Toronto District School Board. Students arriving from abroad are bewildered by the new environment and a school system which differs from the one they left behind. This program pairs each newcomer with a Toronto peer who will guide them through the first week of school. I'm told that the most important things the newcomers learn is "how to get used to the school life here and what the school rules are," and where to go when they have a problem. The SEPT workers encourage newcomer parents and students to get involved in school life by volunteering and by participating in activities such as curriculum nights, parent/teacher interviews, school councils, after school programs and parenting groups. The SEPT staff participates in Safe School Panel Discussions, has collaborated with the CBC television to make a documentary about schools and newcomers. They have also produced two TVO television programs outlining their involvement with newcomers as Settlement Workers.
English Conversation Circle - These conversation circles are held weekly at the home office and in several libraries around the city, and they are lead by volunteers who introduce new topics for conversation. The programs offer chances for newcomers to make friends from all over the world.
Job Search Workshop - This program entails three or four lengthy workshops, followed by two résumé sessions with counsellors. Each participant gets individual counselling to achieve his/her employment goals.
Newcomers who arrive in Toronto without a support group in place, with no job or contacts to help them understand how our systems work and how to get around must be grateful to discover that an organization like CultureLink exists to give them a helping hand. And for those of us who volunteer, the organization provides an opportunity to make friends from far-away countries we may never visit.