Becoming Canadian in Wood Buffalo: Roberto Torres

By Will Collins - Monday, June 16 2014

Growing up in Brazil, Roberto Torres’ prized possession was his soccer ball. But after more than seven years living, working and going to school in Canada, it was his permanent-resident card that became most important to him.

So, it was unnerving for Torres when he was asked to surrender the card upon being sworn in as a Canadian citizen during a ceremony in Fort McMurray last year. The “PR card” had been his Canadian passport. Now he was getting a real one. And that meant citizen Torres had paperwork to do in order to get that passport in time for a trip to Brazil planned for just weeks after his citizenship ceremony.

The Roberto Torres family

The Torres family (from left): Mom Laura, Roberto, wife Ritha, daughter Raissa and son Rafael. [Photo: Crystal Clark]

The real paperwork began years earlier, as Torres prepared himself for the ceremony that would change life for him and his family — wife Ritha, daughter Raissa and son Rafael. And it was fitting that the ceremony last November would be at Keyano College, a place that played an important role in Torres' Canadian adventure as a student of English and environmental technology.

Becoming Canadian in Wood Buffalo: This is the first article in a two-week series of stories, profiles, photographic essays, blogs and videos documenting the journey undertaken by newcomers to our region. 

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Becoming Canadian in Wood Buffalo

For Torres, the Canadian adventure started in 2004. Then, he said, “It was my desire to learn about a different culture, and to experience life in another country. And also to open doors for my kids.”

Fortunately for Torres, there were some seasoned travellers in his family. His brother-in-law had been working and studying in the mining industry in Colorado. That inspired Torres to learn more about living in a foreign country.

“One day I was talking with my brother-in-law, who was living in the United States," he said. "We started talking about the experience of living in another country. He said it was very good, and so I thought I should try. I was looking for something different. I was 35 at the time, and I made the decision to step into a different world.”

Torres said many Brazilians imagine the United States to be the land of great opportunity. While Torres had great dreams, he dared to be different. “I didn’t want to go to the United States,” he said. “I wanted to be in a different country. And I heard a lot about Canada back in Brazil, so I started reading more stuff about Canada.

“As I read more information, I realized that Canada has a good immigration program, so that gave me more motivation to go forward with my dream.

“Canada is a good country, because there isn’t just Canadian culture. I was reading that Canada receives thousands of immigrants every year. That’s an awesome opportunity to know not just Canadian culture, but also the rest of the world.”

Between January and June last year, 59,702 people from around the world were sworn in at 767 ceremonies across the country. But those numbers are the lowest reported over the past five years. In fact, they are almost one third of the nearly 180,000 immigrants that became Canadians in 2008.

“I started researching what I needed to come,” Torres said. “It’s not only the documentation. You have to prepare yourself. I started to do an English course. I was working and looking after my family back there [in Goiania, Brazil], but I found time on the weekends and after work to study English. I also started digging for information about where to go in Canada.”

While doing his homework, Torres’ brother-in-law made a move that would help refine a search for his land of opportunity: Fort McMurray.

“I came to Canada in October 2006, and I started this process in, I think, the middle of 2004. But what happened was my brother-in-law came to Fort McMurray in the beginning of 2006. He said, ‘Roberto, it’s a very good opportunity to come here to work, to start a new life here.’

“We started to assess our different options ... work visa, travel visa. And then I started thinking about the student process. I saw there was a good chance to go as a student.”

Family in Fort McMurray helped Torres to make contact with Keyano College and he started another round of applications and documentation. Eventually, he got his admission letter and applied for his student visa. He wanted to study English, but he also wanted to study a program that would give him the tools he needed to start a new life in Fort McMurray.

“I decided to take Environmental Technology because I had worked in a mine [in Brazil] for 12 years.

“I had to put everything into this decision, so I sold everything that I had: my apartment, car. I also decided to bring my wife and two kids with me, because being away from them would be hard.”

Even while still back in Brazil, Keyano was an important institution that aided Torres in his journey. “In August 2006, we received a letter from the Canadian Consulate in Brazil. They had issued me a student visa. So my whole family came as students.”

They have been learning ever since.

Torres finished his course at Keyano in 2008, and he is now an environmental specialist at Suncor, ensuring that operations are in compliance with environmental regulations.

Also new Canadian citizens, daughter, Raissa, now 22, is a recent graduate of Keyano’s nursing program, while Rafael, 20, has just finished his diploma in administration and plans to go to university in the fall.

“For my kids, it wasn’t a problem,” Torres said. “They learned fast. Once they got here, in three months they were speaking English very well.” Raissa was 15 and Rafael was 13 at the time. “It actually helped us a lot in the beginning, because I was always asking my kids how to say this and that.”

Ritha, who was a lawyer in Brazil, keeps herself busy operating a day-care business out of their home, caring for six children. She often introduces Brazilian culture to the kids, especially the food, and plans on getting her citizenship soon.

Torres’ brother-in-law still resides in Fort McMurray with his wife and children, and although they aren’t Canadian citizens, they have firmly planted roots here too. In addition, an extended family has become acquainted with this northern community. The Torres family has had visits from cousins, aunts and uncles, and, in 2013, Torres’ brother spent some time studying at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, only to swing by Fort McMurray on his way back to Goiania.

Torres’ mother, Laura, also visits, often staying up to six months at a time. After four trips to Fort McMurray, she has been exposed to all seasons and weather conditions. “She enjoys the wintertime, because it’s different from what we have in Brazil,” Torres said. “She likes the quiet life at home.”

For Torres, however, life in Fort McMurray has been everything but quiet. He’s been hard at work and play. He spends his leisure time involved with Judo, photography, rowing, skiing, scuba, squash and at the gym. He is also often involved in organizing regular barbecues and get-togethers with other Brazilian families and friends in the community. And there are quite a few.

“Our decision to stay in Fort McMurray all depended on how we were feeling being here,” he said. “We were very happy to be here, to be part of this country. And then I decided that I wanted to become a citizen.”

It took Torres two years to get his citizenship, and like any part of the immigration process, there is plenty of documentation to assemble. There’s also an interview and a test covering everything from Canadian history and geography to the responsibilities and privileges of being a Canadian citizen.

Successful applicants will ultimately take the final step in becoming a Canadian citizen: the Oath of Citizenship, which is a declaration that a person will be loyal to the Queen, obey Canada’s laws and customs and fulfill the duties of a Canadian citizen.

At one of three citizenship ceremonies in November 2013 — along with just over 300 people from around the world — that’s just what Roberto, Raissa and Rafael Torres did. They took their oath, and they did it at Keyano College, the place where it all began.

The federal government also came through with those passports in time for the trip to Brazil.

Now settled in his new home in Parsons Creek, Torres reflected on his experience of becoming Canadian:

“What brought me to Canada was not that I was unhappy in Brazil. I was looking for something bigger. I was looking for a different door to open. A different country. A different way to live. A different experience. This is what made me come here, and I am so glad that I found great people that supported me and my family on this journey to make my dreams come true.”

Citizenship Figures for Fort McMurray

Individuals who became Canadian citizens at ceremonies held in Fort McMurray over the past few years:

Year 2010 2011 2012 * 2013
New citizens 510 699 223 497

(*) Approximately 300 residents of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo travelled to the City of Edmonton in 2012 to become Canadian Citizens, leading to a lower-than-usual number of new citizens welcomed in the area for that year.

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