In Calgary, ‘welcoming’ immigrants is no longer enough

(Katherine Welles/Shutterstock)

When Jeny Mathews-Thusoo was tasked with re-designing Calgary’s “Welcoming Community Policy” for immigrants, she asked a colleague at City Hall for some thoughts.

Her colleague’s first reaction was telling. Surely, it must be a tourism initiative: The word “welcoming” sounds like you’re hosting guests, not helping people settle into a new home. The observation changed the way Mathews-Thusoo thought about her task. “When do immigrants belong to the city, or to the country?” she says. “When do they stop being immigrants?”

It’s a question that Mathews-Thusoo, herself a daughter of Indian immigrants, thinks about a lot.

In her 12 years working for the city, she has seen immigrants struggle to find their way. While Calgary, an oil town on the Canadian plains, has boomed to a population of 1.2 million, underemployment remains a growing long-term problem for immigrants. Equally worrying, she explains, is that many of them, no matter how long they’ve been in the country, feel they aren’t considered active members of society.

Calgary’s Jeny Mathews-Thusoo

In reshaping Calgary’s newcomer policy, Mathews-Thusoo wants the city to take a greater responsibility in fostering a sense of belonging. The first item on her list is to change the policy’s name. “I absolutely hate the word ‘welcoming’,” noting the privilege it implies for those who came first. “It provides a power imbalance, an idea that ‘This is still my home’.”

The feeling is personal. Although she was born in Canada, Mathews-Thusoo says people often ask her where she’s from. “I don’t think people understand what it symbolizes,” she says. “It means that you still don’t belong.”

Next on her agenda is to look at the policy’s five key areas — employment, community networks, public services, participation in civic life, and safety — and identify the systemic barriers immigrants face with each one of them. She wants to build strategies to remove these barriers.

Mathews-Thusoo has already set out to tackle civic participation. Since 2015, she’s been working with a group of about 30 foreign-born citizens who advise the city on programmes and policy making. Each member is tasked with running focus groups in their own communities to report back to City Hall on the needs expressed by immigrants.

[See: Canada experiments with U. S.‘sanctuary city’ model]

The group is currently participating in the review of Calgary’s sports policy, which supports and coordinates sports infrastructure, programmes and initiatives. They could be asked to do the same for other city services, such as public transit. “It’s about having a voice at the table,” she says. “And a meaningful voice, not just a token voice.”

But addressing the systemic barriers to inclusion also implies discussing the city’s role in fighting racism and xenophobia. That’s still largely a taboo in Canada’s public sector, but one that cities here can no longer afford to ignore.

The demographics of immigration have been changing in Canada, with more people coming from Middle Eastern, Asian and now African countries. The trend is spurring heated debates on integration, racial discrimination and the accommodation of religious practices. Calgary, with more than a quarter of its population born abroad, is poised to see some of these debates unfold on its own ground.

Mathews-Thusoo believes attitudes are slowly changing at City Hall. The popularity of the city’s mayor, Naheed Nenshi, the first Muslim mayor of a large North American City and a second-generation Canadian, helps. Nenshi was first elected in 2010, and then re-elected in 2013 with 74 percent of the vote. “People are recognizing that demographics are changing, that multiculturalism is a strength, but don’t know how to support these communities,” she explains.

Mathews-Thusoo recently held an informal session with city employees called “Having the awkward conversation about race and racism” to answer some of the questions they had on diversity but were afraid to discuss openly. Employees were given the opportunity to ask questions anonymously. The meeting was so popular that staff asked for a second one.

“There’s a level of readiness,” she says, “that I haven’t seen in a long time.”

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Flavie Halais is a freelance journalist based in Montréal who covers cities and international social issues. She is currently reporting on the economic impact of refugee crises through her project #RefugeeEconomics. Full bio

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