Through a connection to a friend I was asked by someone if I would volunteer to speak to a small group of immigrants in a MOSAIC program – who now reside in Vancouver – about one of my favourite topics: Vancouver. Specifically, it was going to be a chance for us to converse, and allow the group to practice forming questions and answers in English. I saw it as a crash course in civics.
Seated at a table with me were a friendly gentleman from Hong Kong, only recently arrived here in the past four months. Also at the table were: a woman from the Philippines who had been here for about five years; a gentleman from Seoul, South Korea, with a bright, enthusiastic face; a woman in her twenties from Poland; and a mother from China currently living in Kerrisdale.
Just like my time as a candidate for public office last year, it was a chance for me to see a face of Vancouver I don't get to experience often. I could talk to newcomers and hear about their impressions of their adopted home. Less than a year ago I was invited out to speak to the YouthPolitik group at Vancouver City Hall, and it reminded me a bit of that occasion to see so much excitement for our city.
Given the floor to speak I thought it wouldn't hurt to ingratiate myself by sharing a bit of my own heritage. My father's great grandfather arrived in Canada in the 1870s, one of thousands of German Mennonite families arriving on our shores from central and eastern Europe. My mother's Romanian descendants came to Canada late in the 19th Century.
Just like I can't imagine the struggles my ancestors must have endured in their new land over a century ago (egads – no wireless network?), I have no idea what it would be like for someone who just arrived in Canada today. Here was a chance to learn.
Here are a few recollections from our hour or so together…
The gentleman from Hong Kong lamented the fact he didn't get into the housing market sooner. He was astonished that a property he looked at during an earlier visit had gone up by $1 million in value by the time he settled back here. No surprise there.
The woman from the Philippines was – interestingly – the only one of the group currently living on the east side. She talked about going to Richmond to shop because the parking was free (who can blame her?), and wished that work certification she received abroad would be recognized in Canada. This is a concern that we've heard reported often in the media.
The gentleman from Korea had recently moved into a more affordable apartment because his rent was too high. He talked about cycling in Vancouver and wondered why we don't have even more bike paths. He said in Seoul they have free bikes everywhere to ride across the city. Not rented, but free. He wished we had something similar as he says "Vancouver is very flat" and easy to navigate from his Marpole home. Others at the table smiled at his energetic ideas.
The young woman from Poland wished employment was easier to come by in Vancouver, and questioned whether the price of housing would ever go down (answer: probably not). Only in her twenties, she was a snowboarding enthusiast who asked where the most affordable hills for boarding existed. I wonder if one of the local slopes might hire her to assist skiers onto lifts like thousands of Aussies do here already?
The Chinese woman residing in Kerrisdale commented that her son in grade six was being negatively affected by the current teacher's labour action. "He does not bring home any homework this year," she remarked (for the record my kid still has lots of homework). She sounded like many other parents in B.C. do these days with regards to our schools.
In their short time here they all had made connections to Vancouver, describing their favourite places to shop, dine or recreate. All wished it was more affordable here and work was easier to come by, but they were trying hard to fit in by learning the language, understanding customs and looking for opportunities to build their networks.
Programs like the one offered by MOSAIC clearly make the landing into Canada a softer one for newcomers. We are a country, after all, by in large made up by the kind of folks that sat with me at the table. All of them will someday, I expect, become fantastic Canadian citizens in their own right.
Indications are that housing has become too expensive and jobs opportunities too scarce for Vancouver to remain attractive to many. Without these newcomers, however, we risk losing their enterprise and their passion for this place. For all of our sakes, I hope that our city will always be a top choice for immigrants.