The Diverse, Vibrant Voices of Fort McMurray: Newcomers find abundant resources to help them communicate and connect

By Monica Leslie - Thursday, December 1 2011

It is no secret that Fort McMurray is one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse communities in Canada. People travel to Fort McMurray from all over the world, seeking a better life for themselves and their families. With them, they bring their culture, tradition and language. For every language spoken in Fort McMurray, there is a story about the welcoming and inviting spirit newcomers experience when they arrive.

For many immigrants, Fort McMurray is their first experience of Canada. If they have very little knowledge of the English or French language, settlement can be very difficult. To combat this challenge, there are many organizations in Fort McMurray who believe that it is essential to help newcomers integrate and flourish within the community.

Immigrant Settlement services, a program run through the Wood Buffalo YMCA, is one such organization that strives to create a smooth transition for immigrants just arriving in Fort McMurray.

Addressing language is one of the top priorities of the program. “That’s probably one of the top three barriers to settling. For us, we try to accommodate that by having a very multilingual staff,” says Reave MacLeod, Senior Director of Community Programs for Immigrant Settlement Services. In addition to language, immigrants often struggle with the high cost of living soon after settling here, as well as having their foreign credentials recognized so that they may find meaningful jobs.

Immigrant Settlement Services provides newcomers with resources that address virtually any need they have for themselves or for their families. “Our Community Connections Club runs conversation circles where people can practise their English,” explains MacLeod. “Or if they’re needing a more concrete class we’ll refer them elsewhere, like Keyano College, to take language training.”

The conversation circles are not only a place for newcomers to practise their English skills. “They’re also connecting with people from other cultures because this is such a diverse, thriving community so they’re making those social connections as well,” says MacLeod.

For Andrew Manyevere, Executive Director of the Fort McMurray Multicultural Association, language is a crucial part of helping a newcomer feel at home in a new community. Without this, newcomers will not be able to communicate or connect with other people. “Many people don’t understand what it is to be unable to communicate,” says Manyevere. “If one hasn’t travelled away from his own home, he will never understand how traumatic it is and even more so if you get to a place where people are so busy.”

One of the Multicultural Association’s goals is to help newcomers connect with those who may share their language and culture, so that they feel they have a support system here. The Association helps newcomers find jobs, education and other resources that meet their individual needs. There is also a sports program, which Manyevere believes is an essential way for people from different cultures to meet and become friends.

“When people meet, in an informal environment, they are able to remove barriers – they may be cultural, they may be linguistic – because people can actually begin to relate to each other,” says Manyevere. In addition to sports, the Multicultural Association organizes cooking classes and social dinners as a means of sharing cultures and connecting with other people.

When families immigrate to Fort McMurray from other countries, they often depend on the school system to help them address their needs. Lorraine Demers, Partnership Facilitator for the Fort McMurray Public School District, believes that schools in the region make a great effort to help students and families who have immigrated here from other countries.

“A lot of schools, when a child comes in, they’ll right away partner them with another student that maybe speaks the same language so they can at least have that comfort of ‘okay, I can speak in my native language to begin with’,” says Demers. “We have very strong English language learning programs in the schools to help students learn a new language.” This provides comfort for a student who may otherwise feel afraid in their new community.

The image that newcomers have of Fort McMurray is varied, but positive. Fort McMurray’s reputation for being a welcoming and inviting community is strengthened by newcomers who feel that the resources they need to have a good quality of life are available here.

“Many people who come to Fort McMurray have said that people are so willing to help them out, they’re willing to say hello to them, they establish friendships with people very easily,” says Demers. It is this spirit of friendship and helpfulness offered by the community that makes newcomers feel at home.

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