Artist fosters civic engagement

I was excited when the editor suggested I write a column about an event held at Richmond City Hall called Eat, Talk, Connect, organized by Richmond Multicultural Community Services.

It was created and facilitated by Zoe Kreye, RMCS's Artist-in-Residence who explores creative ways to use art to encourage civic engagement.

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But it's taken me over a week to put virtual pen to paper because although I think the event was both a great idea and a great success, I've been trying to come to terms with why it was necessary in the first place and what that says about the path we've laid from immigration to community inclusion.

First, let me tell you about the event itself. Twenty new Canadians were paired with 20 officials from the city. Long tables were set up in one of the meeting rooms at City Hall, decorated with unique tablecloths, place settings, and dishes cooked by the new Canadians, who put a lot of time and effort into their preparations.

This was done to make the city officials feel like they had been invited to their partner's home for lunch and to set the table (pun wildly intended) for the pairs to open up and share experiences on a person-toperson (not citizen to official) basis.

There were paper runners on the table as well, where the facilitator had painted conversation starters to get things going. But as it turned out, no one needed any ice breakers and the pairs were excited to get to know each other. Some surprising connections were discovered.

One pair found out they lived a couple of blocks apart and had kids in the same school, for example.

After 45 minutes of intimate conversation that flew by too quickly, there was a debrief in the form of a facilitated dialogue about what had been discussed. It turned out to be difficult for the participants because the conversations had been so sincere and interesting that it was hard to bring those personal reflections out for all to hear. And you'll soon understand why.

Many talked about feelings of isolation; about not fitting in or not feeling represented and the stress that results. Some talked about being torn between relying on their own ethnic communities for a sense of belonging and worrying about failing to integrate into the Canadian mainstream.

This is a tension that many readers of this column appear to be concerned about as well. Many people (not only new Canadians, by any means) define themselves in terms of their jobs, as our work is such a large part of our personal identities. It's no coincidence that the first question we ask people we meet is "What do you do?" And so it's no surprise that some of the participants spoke about the significant loss of social status they'd experienced after moving to Canada and the resulting shame and depression they felt. One woman in her 50s, who has an MBA, talked about not being able to find work, or being expected to take any crappy job and to feel honoured to be given the opportunity. Is that how they are supposed to feel?

I can't count the number of times immigrants with incredibly impressive backgrounds have told me that they can't find a job here because every employer is looking for 'Canadian experience.'

Having worked overseas myself, I have to wonder what is so magical about the Canadian workplace that makes Canadian experience the absolute minimum criterion in a hiring decision. Whatever the case, the Catch-22 of Canadian experience is making the adjustment to life in Canada an extremely frustrating experience for many.

But back to Eat, Talk, Connect. I'm proud to live in a city that recognizes and acknowledges the struggles that newcomers face and is constantly looking for ways to reach out to make them feel welcome and included. The key to real membership in a community is civic engagement and putting newcomers and city officials together across a table to share experiences (and lunch) is one small step in the right direction.

Dr. Joe Greenholtz is a regulated Canadian immigration consultant and sits on the Richmond intercultural Advisory Committee. He can be reached at joe@premiercic.com.

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