We Are Winter: Integrating Immigrants into Canada

Winter. It knows us better than we know ourselves.
It shapes and forges us into who we are and who we know we can become …
Winter gives us everything. It expects us to give it all back. We are Canada. We are winter.
– excerpts from We Are Winter video by the Canadian Olympic Committee

On Monday morning, freezing rain will move through the region.
Temperatures will fall sharply in the afternoon, leading to the risk of a flash freeze,
followed by snow, followed by sleet, followed by more snow,
followed by hordes of Yeti coming down from the hills to feast on the weakest among us.
Scott Feschuk, Maclean’s Magazine

Skiing in Canada (photo by the author)

Cross-country skiing in Canada (photo by the author)

It’s only January, but most Canadians will tell you already the winter of 2013/14 is one for the history books. It has been one extreme after another and shows few signs of letting up. In Ottawa, where I live, we had more snow by the end of December than in all of last year. We had two periods of deep freeze before January 1st, with temperatures plunging below -30C for several days in a row. Then more snow, followed by freezing rain and – well, no yetis yet, but it is early in the season.

I cross-country ski, I skate on the world’s largest skating rink, make snow angels, and marvel at the silent beauty of a fresh blanket of snow. But even I have felt my affections waning this year. As I shoveled, scraped, shoveled some more and read story after story about the polar vortex causing mayhem across North America, I found myself wondering what it would be like to experience this winter as a new Canadian.

To be born here is to know the difference between a snowy day and a snow day. We have de-icing fluid in our veins and we’re proud of our winter most of the time (except for well-heeled retirees, who turn into snowbirds and migrate to warmer climates from November to March).

What if you were born in a warmer climate – how do you enter this winter culture, with its own costumes, codes and language? And if it’s true that “we are winter”  – as the marketing hype for Canada’s Sochi Olympic team says – then why are the vast majority of Canada’s winter Olympic athletes white? Does not liking winter make you less Canadian?

The easy answer is of course not. There are millions of other Canadians of all colours and origins who feel the same way, and no amount of patriotic hockey songs or Olympic corporate myth-making will change that.

But winter does pose a very real challenge to immigrants. How newcomers adapt to the winter environment – and it to them – has an impact on their integration and sense of belonging.

My own mother came from England to earn big bucks as a young, single secretary in December, 1961. After growing up in a damp Yorkshire home, she fell in love with Canadian central heating. She had the disposable income to go skiing with Canadian friends and buy the best coat she could find.

But for modern migrants from warmer climates, it’s not so easy – and they happen to make up the majority of our immigrant population. Our top source countries are now the Philippines, China and India, with significant numbers from sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean and Central and South America. In a 2005 survey by Statistics Canada, when asked what they disliked most about life in Canada, 27 percent of the newcomers surveyed chose the climate, and 16 percent named it as the biggest challenge to settling into life here, ahead of getting a job and learning a new language.

Still, they adapt, learning to dress like an onion (in layers), braving the snow and sleet because they have no choice, and watching hockey games on TV so they can join in the conversations at work the next day. But over the long term, doing the minimum can lead to four months of isolation, particularly for seniors or unemployed newcomers who don’t have work to draw them out of the house. People talk of the depression that descends as it starts to get dark by 4 p.m. (it’s a diagnosable condition). Many have a reduced social life in colder months and almost no outdoor activity from November to March.

Twenty percent of Canada’s population was born outside the country. We have a vested interest in making winter more appealing, not only for the sake of social cohesion but for the future of the winter sports and the culture we cherish.

Friends of mine from Latin America say the best advice they got on moving to Canada was to get out and embrace winter. One of them skis, the other runs (and actually enjoys the annual Hypothermic Half-Marathon). “I love to be out in winter, when the snow sparkles like diamonds,” says Gabriela, from Mexico. Both women are comfortably middle-class and credit Canadian-born friends with urging them to get off the couch.

Settlement agencies sometimes run events to get local newcomers out to local ski hills or teach them to snowshoe in the national parks. As director of the International Centre at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Sonja Knutson works with 2,000 foreign students and their families, coming from about 90 countries. Concerned about the impact of winter on mental health, her centre is developing a program of activities to help its clients enjoy the outdoors.

“Even a simple activity like tobogganing is a challenge because newcomers do not know basics, like wearing appropriate clothing and getting out of the way at the bottom of the hill, things that we learned as children and take for granted,” says Knutson.

Fewer people are participating in most organized sports overall in Canada, including skiing, skating and even ice hockey, long considered our national passion. Danny Lamoureux, director of club development for the Canadian Curling Association, sees immigrants as key to reversing that trend.

Children learning Curling (Courtesy of the Canadian Curling Association)

Children learning curling (Courtesy of the Canadian Curling Association)

“If curling is going to continue to prosper and grow, we need to fill our buildings with everybody, not just the existing market,” Lamoureux says, but “new Canadians don’t really know we exist.” Lamoureux tried working with an Ottawa settlement agency to host an Introduction to Curling event for immigrants.

“We had kids from Afghanistan, from Africa. They had a ball,” says Lamoureux. “But when it came down to taking up the sport, they couldn’t afford to play – and you can curl for a year for just $200, making it one of the least expensive sports around. But it’s still $200 they don’t have.”

That’s relatively cheap. It can cost from $400 to well over $2500 to register and equip a child for hockey, and skiing is similarly pricey. Even if you just want to get your child skating, you need at least $50 for skates and lessons. Many programs have bursaries to help low-income families, but not nearly enough.

That led the curling association to go create the Rocks and Rings program for school children, which Lamoureux says is sparking interest in every demographic, including newcomers.

“Even if we only get someone to play once a year, that’s success, because there’s a chance that eventually it will translate into something more,” says Lamoureux. “Maybe the first time a kid plays is at 10 years old, or 20. When he’s 30 or 40 years old, and has the time and the means to play, he’ll think about curling, and we’ll be there. We can wait.”

There’s another barrier, the largely unspoken one of culture, race and custom. Let’s face it, most traditional winter sports are very white. I rarely see a face of colour on the ski trails and skating lessons at the city arenas are marginally more diverse. In hockey, for every hockey star like PK Subban – the son of immigrants from the Caribbean – there are scores of others whose roots in Canada go back several generations.

Duane Moleni moved to the northern Ontario city of Sault Ste. Marie seven years ago from his native New Zealand and now organizes the city’s Passport to Unity Festival. He has tried curling and skiing, but prefers ice fishing for its social benefits.

“If you are an older immigrant, late 30s to mid 40s, with children, it is work, work, work all the time in order to sustain and help the next generation,” says Moleni. “It’s not until the second generation that sports come in and even then, you only get them in dribs and drabs.

Sticking with it is another challenge.

“Here’s this kid who is visibly different, coming in to what can feels like a closed off community,” says Moleni. “It can perpetuate that sense of isolation.”

Like so much related to integration, winter demands more of all of us: more veterans reaching out, more newcomers venturing out. If you weren’t raised to know that when someone says “It’s going to be warm tomorrow” they mean “for mid-January,” or that licking a frozen metal pole in winter is a terrible idea, it’s never too late to learn.

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