Imagine trying to do your weekly grocery shop, but the store is totally unfamiliar: you’ve never seen some of these vegetables before, you’re not sure where to find the prices on anything and your favourite brand of, well, everything is nowhere to be found. Moving to a new country has a way of turning even the most everyday tasks into struggles.
Whether it’s social customs, navigating the health-care system, finding a place to live or buying groceries, the people who come here to start new lives face the daunting task of adjusting to Canadian society quickly. (And the 40,000 refugees who sought asylum here in 2016 are likely to face even bigger challenges.) But the six most common things new Canadians struggle with are far less intimidating when neighbours lend a hand. Here’s how to help.
1. Finding community
One of the hardest parts of immigrating to a new home is leaving behind friends and loved ones. Newcomers often feel isolated because of where they live—less-expensive housing is typically farther away from city centres—and building new social circles take time. But connecting people from the same ethnic group or faith is a quick shortcut to new friends, says Claudine Uwangabaye, a social worker and French-class coordinator at ALPA, a non-profit organization that helps resettle newcomers to Canada. Keep your eyes out for welcome events at your local community centre or consider organizing one yourself. Or volunteer with organizations like CSAI, which has a program that matches women who are new to the country with a native Montrealer who can show her around the city—or just hang out for an hour or two.
2. Navigating the grocery store
Grocery stores in North America can be overwhelming, but you can help a newly arrived family out by playing host on their next trip to the store. Connect with newcomers via settlement agencies or charities that support newcomers, like Centre d’appui aux communautés immigrantes (CACI), and plan to go during off-hours so you have plenty of time and space to slowly wander the aisles. Explain products and food labels that may be confusing to someone new to Canada, and point out foods that are typically Canadian, such as maple syrup on pancakes. Better still, host an impromptu cooking class to show newcomers how unfamiliar foods are cooked and enjoyed—and ask for lessons on their food cultures in return.
3. Learning the language
Anyone who has tried to learn a new language knows it’s a hard-won skill. But newcomers have the added challenge of needing communication skills quickly to find work and do everyday tasks like ride the bus. “Some people know French but they want to learn to speak a little bit faster, so I set them up with families who will host them for weekend stays,” says Uwangabaye. “Being immersed in the language is a huge help.”
If English or French is your first language, contact settlement agencies to volunteer as a conversation coach. Many community centres offer spaces to practice speaking skills. Added bonus: you could end up learning a new language, too!
4. Preparing for winter
Canadian snowstorms can be brutal for many newcomers who don’t have the right cold-weather clothes. Before winter starts in Montreal, ALPA begins referring them to agencies and local charities that can provide warm clothing at little or no cost. Donating your gently worn parkas and mitts to settlement agencies and thrift stores can help ensure that newcomers stay warm during the cold months—because it’s much easier to enjoy a real Canadian winter with the right gear.
5. Accessing community resources
Applying for a social insurance number, opening a bank account and even getting their first library cards can be difficult for newcomers who don’t yet speak fluent English or French. Offer to help fill out the correct forms or, even better, accompany your new neighbours to the bank or Service Canada Centre.
6. Having a hobby
Once newcomers are somewhat settled in their new home, Uwangabaye says that figuring out what to do for fun becomes a higher priority on their list. “The thing they say most is ‘We don’t know what to do on the weekends,’ or ‘We have kids and we don’t know where to go,’” she says. Neighbours can help by throwing a block party, or introducing newcomers to zoos, parks, museums and art galleries. And be sure to ask what newcomers used to enjoy doing for fun in their last home. You may even find a common interest to enjoy together.