Helping new Canadians make the Chilliwack connection

As immigrants continue to settle in Chilliwack, a local non-profit organization has taken the lead role in helping them feel at home.

As immigrants continue to settle in Chilliwack, a local non-profit organization has taken the lead role in helping them feel at home. The Chilliwack Community Services recently received a $133,000 grant to further increase access to services for new Canadians in the city. CCS is also planning their immigrant business fair on Friday.

Chilliwack’s agriculture and manufacturing sectors draw immigrants, as does the need to fill positions vacated by the ageing population. CCS doesn’t know how many immigrants settle here, because people have no obligation to check in. But approximately 200-250 people receive settlement support annually. According to 2006 Statistics Canada data, 14 per cent of Chilliwack’s residents are immigrants. And that figure is growing at a rate that is double the province’s average. There are 6,700 immigrants in the Fraser Valley.

“Because we’re such a diverse community here, there isn’t one particular ethnic group. There’s the potential for isolation to be an issue. And if people do not feel connected to their community, if they aren’t connected to friends or family…that can be a deciding factor to relocate elsewhere in the Lower Mainland,” says Neave.

If immigrants leave, then Chilliwack cannot feel the expected economic benefits.

“So many of these people are very skilled. And because they can’t integrate into places outside major urban centres, they don’t actually realize their potential in the job market, which doesn’t actually help the economy,” says new Welcoming Communities program coordinator Melissa Warren.

Continuing to be friendly and welcoming is the most important thing that a Chilliwack resident can do for immigrants, explains Neave.

“We need to welcome immigrants, as they are considered important to our future labour force,” says Neave.

Chilliwack Community Services helps new Canadians learn English, find jobs, register for health insurance, and enroll their kids in schools. They also offer courses on driving in Canada, preparing for the citizenship test, and organize social activities such as cooking and conversation circles.

With the new funds, CCS will develop a newcomer welcome kit containing a long list of relevant services in the community, hold community dialogues, and run a research project to study the immigrant experience in Chilliwack. The organization will also add data to the website.

New Chilliwack resident Sarka Kvicinska received a brochure advertising the CCS’ immigrant settlement services when she first landed at the Vancouver airport ten months ago. From the Czech Republic, Kvicinska followed her husband’s sense of adventure to try something new, and the family immigrated to Chilliwack.

Kvicinska hopes to transfer her private French horn instruction business to the community. In the meantime, she has sharpened her skills with local orchestra groups. Upon cold-calling Chilliwack Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conductor Paula DeWit, Kvicinska received an invite to play with the group.

“This was very positive, very nice. This was my first opportunity,” says Kvicinska, who has since played with other orchestras in the Fraser Valley.

Local businesses run by new Canadians will offer samples, demonstrations, and information at the annual CCS Immigrant Business Fair on May 3, 7–9 p.m. at Central Elementary Community School. 25 exhibitors have registered already, all for the purpose of strengthening their links to the community.

“With community organizations working cooperatively, we are aiming to improve access to services and to provide opportunities for newcomers and residents to meet and build intercultural relationships,” said April Neave, director of community programs at CCS.

Another example of successfully building linkages in Chilliwack is Wegahta Gulbet. Born in Eritrea, in northeastern Africa, Gulbet is into her third year since relocating to Chilliwack for the peace and high quality of life in Canada. Her husband and two children moved to the community on the advice of her brother-in-law, who was here already. She had a tougher time settling in, but says she has grown to like Chilliwack.

“I am very happy to get to Canada now,” says Gulbet.

What helped was attending the Women of the World conversation circle at the CCS.

“I met new women. We spoke about how we came to Canada, what feelings we have. It was the first time I felt a little better.”

Gulbet has found her membership with the Chilliwack Alliance Church to be very helpful as well. She is now studying for her citizenship test through courses at the CCS.

Come April 1, 2014, the federal government will take over settling new immigrants in B.C., a mandate that has been the province’s jurisdiction since 1998. Ottawa says the move is in effort to harmonize settlement services nationally while cutting costs.

Refugee claimants and temporary foreign workers will be excluded from the federal government’s settlement programs. Chilliwack’s welcome centre will not be able to use federal funding to assist people in these groups in settling here.

“Citizenship and Immigration Canada and B.C. meet weekly to ensure that newcomers will continue to receive the services they need, including access to language training, after April 2014,” said CIC spokesperson Danielle Vlemmiks.