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The Changing Face Of The Capital
Somali youth with Premier Dalton McGuinty - Ottawa, Feb, 2005 -
Ottawa, Canada – There was a time — not that long ago — when Ottawa presented a pretty boring face to the rest of the country.
As recently as the 1970s, there was only one “industry” to speak of — the federal government — and the city’s population came almost exclusively in one shade — pale.
Oh sure, we had a couple of blocks of Chinese restaurants on Somerset St., and a few embassy families to add a bit of ethnic mix, but the majority of our immigrants hailed from places like Italy, Ireland and Portugal. While they may have spoken an unfamiliar tongue, they didn’t look much different than families who had been here five generations.
Mayor Bob Chiarelli remembers his childhood at St. Anthony’s School, in the Catholic system. “I can’t recall having a single black or Asian child in the whole school back then,” he says.
What a difference three decades makes. Today, there are more than 60 ethnicities and more than 70 languages spoken in Ottawa.
The ratio of visible minorities in the national capital has increased from 1 in 10 in 1993, to 1 in 7 in 2002. By 2020, visible minorities are expected to comprise 1 in 3 city residents, according to statistics compiled for United Way.
Chiarelli recently visited St. Anthony’s, where he noticed a big difference. “Today, same school, still in the same building, I’d say the majority of students are from visible minorities.”
Immigration is the main driver of Ottawa’s population explosion, accounting for 39% of the city’s growth between 1996 and 2001. In 2001 alone, 8,000 immigrants chose Ottawa as their destination — about the same number of immigrants who went to Winnipeg, Hamilton and London combined.
Some came as refugees, others to join families or friends. Virtually every one of them arrived with a common goal: To start a new life in the very heart of a country brimming with opportunity.
Abdirizak Karod knows the challenges of starting a new life in a strange land. The executive director of the Somali Centre arrived a decade ago from his African homeland, along with a wave of Somali refugees. They landed in Ottawa in the midst of a recession and had trouble getting jobs, training or much in the way of assistance as they struggled to adjust to a dramatically different lifestyle.
“We came from 20,000 km away ... from a land of sunshine where there is no winter, to -40 C temperatures. That was challenging by itself. We were used to one culture and one religion. Here it’s a mosaic. So many different people and beliefs.”
Karod could have used the kind of help now provided by the Somali Centre, which offers assistance with everything from language training to youth programs, housing, counseling and women’s programs.
“Language is the No. 1 barrier,” he says. “You have to be able to communicate in at least one of the official languages to get anywhere.”
Karod estimates 40-50 Somalis arrive in Ottawa each month. “It’s a good place to live. We’re enjoying the life.”
Unfortunately, says Chiarelli, official Ottawa doesn’t always reflect the new reality of its makeup.
“It disturbs me somewhat that city council is not more representative of the population at large,” he says. “I think we could do better in encouraging people (of various ethnic backgrounds) to run for public office.
“We have a lot of work to do and we have to stay on the job. Even the face of City Hall is not reflective of our diversity. All segments of our population need to be encouraged to apply.”
Chiarelli notes that, when they were called to the bar, he and former Tory MPP Garry Guzzo were the first two practicing lawyers of Italian descent in Ottawa.
“That has changed drastically over the years, but it (change) takes time ... and patience.”
One of the most interesting aspects of the changing face of Ottawa, says a retired history professor from Carleton University, is the areas of origin of the new arrivals.
“We’re a lot different from Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver,” says John Taylor, author of a number of works on Ottawa’s history.
Vietnam, Somalia and Lebanon send the nation’s capital the bulk of its new arrivals, notes Taylor, and they’re hanging on to their ethnic roots when they come here.
“This city historically has had very sharp divisions along religious and language lines” — English and French, Catholic and Protestant. With that kind of background, Taylor says, “there’s not much pressure to conform. Conform to what?”
Descendants of Irish and Scottish immigrants who landed here a century ago might maintain some traditions “on St. Patrick’s Day or Robbie Burns Day, but most of the time it’s not a big influence in their lives,” Taylor says.
“Today it’s different. People hold on to their heritage. There’s not the trend towards assimilation.”
The changing face of Ottawa, says the mayor, is reflective of an international phenomenon. “There’s a lot more mobility. You’ll see the same thing in Rome ... or Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver.”
Many are attracted to the national capital by good job prospects.
“Talk to any economist and you’ll hear that we’re running into a shortage of skilled workers,” Chiarelli says. “We’re looking at real labor problems in the very near future.”
Many immigrants came to Ottawa because of our hi-tech sector, settling here when that segment of the economy was booming five years ago.
The dream doesn’t always work out as planned.
Samath and Jarinya Heng both became casualties of the tech wreck, but saw their change in fortune as an opportunity to try something new. They opened a west-end restaurant called Baan Thai — meaning “Thai Home.”
“That’s the story of so many of our immigrant families,” says Chiarelli. “They quickly become strong contributing members of our community.”
Doctors driving cabs
Ottawa, in turn, offers them a warm welcome, says the mayor.
However, it’s not always easy, Chiarelli concedes, for immigrants to find work in the area for which they’re trained.
“We still have too many foreign-trained doctors and lawyers and teachers driving taxis or changing the linens in our hotels and that has to stop.”
He says the city is working with federal and provincial governments to speed up the certification process for immigrant professionals, noting “that’s the biggest complaint of newcomers.”
Even if a foreign-trained doctor doesn’t have all the qualifications to practice here, he may be able to be certified as a paramedic, says Chiarelli.
The mayor’s comments are echoed by Fred Awada, executive director of Lebanese and Arab Social Services of Ottawa.
“We have people arriving here in Ottawa who were accepted to come here because of their professional qualifications, but who then find that their skills aren’t readily recognized,” he says.
“We’re doing our best to help them find their way through the
labyrinthine process ... to help the doctors and dentists and lawyers and numerous other professionals use their training and not be forced off into other fields.”
In remarks prepared for delivery more than four years ago, at the time of amalgamation, Chiarelli described Ottawa in these words:
“We are great not because we are now a big city, but because we are a community of strong neighborhoods and villages. Every morning, I travel from my own neighborhood near Carlingwood through McKellar Park, Westboro, Hintonburg, Mechanicsville, Little Italy, Chinatown, Centretown and Elgin St. to City Hall — a journey that lasts 15 minutes, but that speaks volumes about the richness of Ottawa, and about what is really important about our work at city council — which is building a city of communities.
“And building a city of communities is what I believe our city government needs to focus on now. If there is one thing I have learned as mayor, it is that one size does not fit all when we are talking about how we deliver city services — different neighborhoods and different villages have different needs.
“Fallingbrook has different needs than Manotick, which has different needs from Lowertown, which has different needs from Craig Henry, which has different needs from Galetta.”
By GEOFF MATTHEWS
Source: Ottawa Sun,