Warming up the welcome for immigrants

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The Latin American Campaign for Civic Participation seeks to integrate newcomers into Canadian life, through popular education and the facilitation of dialogue with political representatives.  Photo: Jeannine M. Pitas

For many newcomers to Canada, political engagement is not an immediate priority. Immigration poses challenges, learning a new language, navigating a new community, seeking employment, finding housing, and so much more. It can be completely overwhelming for those newly arrived. But according to Adriana Salazar, a Toronto-based project co-ordinator at Toronto's Mennonite New Life Centre, civic participation is crucial for newcomers who seek to make a life for themselves within Canadian society.

"The reality of those newly arrived to Canada is very difficult. Newcomers are integrated through the job market, which means that years can go by without them knowing much about the communities they live in," explained Salazar, who was a social psychologist and human rights worker in her native Colombia before coming to Canada six years ago.

"As a result, newcomers are unable to advocate for themselves because they don't know how the political system works. I would argue that Canadian society at large does not do enough to integrate newcomers -- for example, in ESL classes they learn that it's impolite to ask other people about their political opinions, and so they come out thinking that they need to avoid having these kinds of discussions."

Salazar began to take note of the situation in 2009, soon after taking a job at the Mennonite New Life Centre, a multicultural settlement agency for newcomers, where she was hired to co-ordinate a project entitled "Newcomer Skills at Work: Refusing to Settle for Less." Realizing the difficulties newcomers face when approaching the government, Salazar's team formed a coalition with 16 other settlement agencies, unions, community groups and other organizations in north-west Toronto. In June 2010, the Latin American Campaign for Civic Participation was born.

"Our first task was to decide what approach to take toward promoting civic awareness and political participation from newcomers living in that region, many of them from Latin America," Salazar explained.

Salazar and other campaign organizers decided to pursue a twofold strategy of popular education and the facilitation of dialogue with political representatives. Their first events included workshops about the Canadian electoral process, citizens' rights and duties, and the judicial system. In October 2010, soon before Ontario's municipal elections, they organized a Toronto mayoral debate with the four front-runners of the election, where newcomers who had participated in the workshops could pose questions to the candidates. This event, attended by 400 people, solidified the group's sense of purpose.

"The debate was a great success, and we are planning a similar meeting this year prior to the Ontario Provincial Elections," Salazar said.

The campaign is also continuing its popular education strategy, most recently through a three-part series of interactive workshops held in Toronto last May. Through presentations, roundtable discussions and role-playing activities, these workshops allowed participants to learn about the structure of Canada's federal, provincial and municipal systems and also about ways that they might get involved in the civic and political life of their communities (even if they are recently arrived and ineligible to vote).

"I decided to participate in the workshop because, as a recent arrival to Canada, I feel the need to learn as much as possible about my new home if I'm to build a future here," said Amanda Zamora, a newcomer from Colombia who arrived six months ago.

Adriana Sarassa, a 25-year-old photography student from Colombia, moved with her parents to Canada in March 2011 after several years in the United States.

"I've mostly come to Canada in search of better educational opportunities that wouldn't be available to me otherwise," she said. "My parents and I found out about the workshop through an ad in a community paper, and most of what we learned we hadn't known before. This gives us the motivation to get involved in the community and make the Latino presence in Canada known."

However, not all are recent immigrants. Guatemalan-born Rolando Agreda, who has been a Canadian citizen since 1978, found that he still had new things to learn. "I attended because I'm concerned about the lack of unity in our Latin American communities and our lack of representation in government. I want to participate in this campaign because it's clear that their ultimate goal is to change that."

Colombian-born Monica Romero, who attended the workshop due to her background in international relations and long-standing interest in politics, also viewed the lack of Latin American representation in government as a serious concern.

"I see it in part as a cultural and historical problem. In many of our countries, we're not raised with the idea that an individual should be involved in political life. They are more inclined to leave the decisions to others, even though those decisions end up affecting their own lives. It's important for people to learn that they do have the capacity to participate actively, to propose solutions and perhaps even to bring about changes to the political, economic and social conditions that they find unsatisfactory in their communities."

Salazar affirmed that the lack of interest in political participation is not a specifically Latin American issue, but a universal one.

"A lot of people find it hard to become interested in politics," she said, adding that despite its name, the campaign aimed to reach out to many diverse communities in Toronto. "We want to partner with everyone, to reflect the diversity of the northwest region of Toronto, to include people who have been in Canada for a long time as recent immigrants. The Latin American community is our core strength, but we don't want it to become a limitation."

One of the most rewarding aspects of working on the campaign thus far for Salazar has been the chance to engage with political refugees who were leaders in their home countries.

"So many of these people come here tired, disillusioned due to their past experiences. I've gotten to see how they've changed over the course of the workshop, how they become empowered to believe in a political system again. This is our main goal with the campaign -- for people to walk out of the final session and say 'Wow, I really can do something.'"

Jeannine M. Pitas is a graduate student at University of Toronto's Centre for Comparative Literature. Read her blog about religion, politics and culture here.

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