NEW CANADIANS AS VOLUNTEERS : Experiencing Canada and community
By Louise Chatterton Luchuk
Did you know that in 2001 the proportion of foreign-born people living in Canada was the highest its been in 70 years? Almost five and a half million people - or 18.4% of our total population - were born outside of Canada, coming from 200 different ethnic groups. Statistics also tell us that 75% of immigrants who arrived in the last ten years are able to speak English, and 11% are able to converse in both official languages.
Our community profiles are increasingly multicultural, but the same is not always true of our volunteer communities. The 1997 National Survey of Giving,Volunteering and Participating (NSGVP) shows that newer immigrants, at more than twice the national average, reported not knowing how to become involved as the reason for not volunteering more - or at all. Regardless of when they immigrated, foreign-born Canadians had a lower volunteer rate.
An untapped resource
Volunteering offers new Canadians an opportunity to understand more about, and integrate into, their new homeland. If volunteer-involving organizations are in need of new sources of volunteers, then including new Canadians can be mutually beneficial. Marcela Ciampa, manager of training and consulting at the United Way Windsor-Essex, considers involving new Canadians as volunteers a great way to "increase access to a valuable and largely untapped resource" She encourages organizations to identify barriers to accessibility and to create a volunteer base that is reflective of the ethnic diversity of their community.
In 2002, as a way of expressing its core value of inclusiveness, Ciampa's organization developed Building Bridges: A Guide for Making Volunteer Programs Accessible to Persons of Diverse Cultures with Various Levels of English Proficiency. The guide helps organizations identify barriers to accessibility by persons of diverse cultures and provides volunteer management best practices for organizations to follow.
Learning about the Canadian experience
Maria Auxiliadora Ramos, cross-cultural and speakers' bureau program coordinator at the Halifax-based Metropolitan Immigrant Settlement Association (MISA), explains how important it is for new Canadians to contribute. "They need to be exposed to the Canadian system and experiences." One volunteer, a man originally from Jordan, told Ramos, "I have come to a new country. I want to be part of the new country and my new community. By participating, contributing, and volunteering I will be able to be part of Canada and my native and new community."
Last year Ramos coordinated a program to support nonprofit organizations and help new Canadians make positive connections. Twenty-four new Canadians took part in the 12-session program to prepare for governance positions within Halifax nonprofit organizations. Participants included:
Ramos emphasizes that, "New Canadians come ready-made with professional skills and credentials from their home country." In fact, the new Immigration and Refugee Protection Act reserves the highest points for education, work experience, and language proficiency when screening skilled workers immigrating to Canada. However, Ramos' experience suggests that as much as newcomers want to contribute their skills and perspective as part of the process of making Canada their new home, there is resistance to including them. "To me there is no difference between Canadian-born and foreign-born. I want to use whatever talents and skills I can learn from them, and they can learn from me. That's a 100% gain."
What about communities that are not as culturally diverse?
Gail Miller, volunteer services manager of the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, describes her volunteer base as historically being fairly homogeneous. Nevertheless, she is reaching out in small ways to include non-Canadian born volunteers. A few years ago, the museum held some events involving the Chinese community in conjunction with one of their exhibits and that brought in a few Chinese Canadian volunteers. She was also approached by an English as a Second Language (ESL) student who wanted to volunteer as a way of practicing English language skills. The student returned with a friend and soon a few more ESL students asked to volunteer at the museum. Today there are about 15 volunteers from the ESL program.
While many volunteer positions at the museum require strong English language skills (for example, interpretive volunteers), Miller finds that the ESL students are well placed as greeter/coat check volunteers. It is valuable that they can speak another language to greet foreign tourists, and the language interaction is at a suitable level to help the ESL students practice their English skills too. Miller pairs each ESL volunteer with an English-speaking volunteer and encourages the two to enjoy talking - chatting is part of the volunteer position! In her attempts, Miller has noticed "a domino effect in that the more visible minorities we have, the more visible minorities feel welcome."
An opportunity exists for volunteer-involving organizations to expand their volunteer base and introduce new Canadians to an important Canadian value - the value of community involvement.
Louise Chatterton Luchuk is a freelance writer and consultant who combines her love of writing with experience at the local, provincial and national levels of volunteer-involving organizations. For more information, visit www.luchuk.com.
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