If you got all your news from our national TV networks and CBC Radio, you would think that all the refugees are arriving in Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal. That is not the case.
What the national media is largely missing is the fact that Syrian refugees will also be heading to small and mid-sized centres across Canada.
A few thousand refugees arriving in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver will hardly be noticed, but a family or two arriving in a small centre has the potential to transform that municipality in an extremely positive fashion.
Energizing and transforming Northern Ontario
In North Bay Ontario, where I live, Mayor Al McDonald’s leadership has created a groundswell of support for Syrian refugees.
With coordination provided by the North Bay & District Multicultural Centre, almost $50,000 has been raised and volunteer committees have been formed to ease the transition for two large Syrian refugee families coming to our city. There is a possibility of two more families being sponsored by church groups.
In nearby West Nipissing, more individuals are fundraising to sponsor a family. Up the highway in Temiskaming Shores there is yet another group. The same is happening further north in Englehart and Timmins. The populations of these centres are 54,000, 14,000, 10,400, 1,500 and 43,000, respectively.
A family or two arriving in a small centre has the potential to transform that municipality.
Add large Syrian families in to the mix (we’re talking six to 10 children) and they will be noticed. Based on the incredible community support I have witnessed in North Bay, despite the naysayers, these families will be welcomed, supported, mentored and nurtured. While North Bay and Timmins have mosques, these families could well be the first Muslims in the smaller communities.
That can be transformational for the communities.
Northern Ontario has a challenge with baby boomer retirements, low birth rate and a youth diaspora. Without sustained immigration, jobs will go unfilled and communities will slowly decline.
I had lunch with a prominent immigrant entrepreneur recently and he said we should be bringing 2,000 families to North Bay, not two, or four. I told him we don’t have the capacity to successfully integrate 2,000 at once, but I got his point. Northern Ontario needs people, and Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver have too many.
Resettlement strategies in these communities are vital
Federal and provincial governments have to get their heads around a strategy to settle refugees and immigrants in the smaller centres across Canada. To keep settling newcomers in the big cities when the jobs are elsewhere makes no sense.
Mayors in smaller centres have to embrace immigration and lobby for more resources to support successful integration. I see them doing that in New Brunswick, which demographically bears a lot of similarities to Northern Ontario.
Manitoba’s smaller centres have had successful immigration strategies for years but the remainder of the country needs to wake up. Manitoba normally receives about 1,500 refugees a year, the highest per capita of any province, and is prepared to double that number to up to 3,000 Syrian refugees.
The Syrian refugees coming to Northern Ontario are through the blended sponsorship program supported by the Mennonite Central Committee based in St. Catharines. Private sponsors pay 60 per cent of the cost for the family’s first year in Canada and the federal government pays 40 per cent.
These families could well be the first Muslims in the smaller communities.
The most vulnerable are at the top of the list, so we are not expecting professionals and skilled trades people who can walk right in to an available job. However, the children can learn English quickly, catch up in school and contribute to society in reasonably short order. Success breeds success, and more families could follow.
Chris Friesen, director of settlement services for the Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia, has been on the national news regularly as the Syrian refugee situation unfolds. Normally he says all the right things, except for one evening when he was commenting about B.C. Premier Christy Clark’s wishes to have Syrian refugees settled across B.C.—not just in Vancouver and its suburbs.
Friesen said that won’t work because all the necessary services such as language classes, specialized medical care and trauma counselling are not available. In my view, he is just plain wrong.
Those services do exist in smaller centres; where they don’t, they can be accessed remotely. I saw one piece about a refugee waiting seven months to get in to a language class. In North Bay and other smaller centres, we can get them in class in a day.
Volunteers will arrange one-on-one intensive language tutoring and enrol refugees in online Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) training supported by the federal government.
For Friesen to say smaller communities can’t do it is wrong, and good for Premier Clark for telling him so. It’s time for other premiers and mayors to speak out and create support in all provinces for spreading the load of refugee settlement and integration across their entire provinces.
Don Curry is the Executive Director of the North Bay & District Multicultural Centre, and Co-Chair of the North Bay Newcomer Network Local Immigration Partnership Initiative and the Timmins Local Immigration Partnership.
Don Curry is the President of Curry Consulting, which provides immigration solutions for rural and northern Canadian municipalities, and an NCM director (2022 - 23). He is also the Founding Executive Director of The North Bay & District Multicultural Centre, a multi-award winning immigrant settlement agency with offices in North Bay and Timmins. It is the lead agency for the Local Immigration Partnership project, the North Bay Newcomer Network and the Timmins Local Immigration Partnership.