Last year, as fires around Fort McMurray displaced thousands of people, a group of Syrian refugees in Calgary started donating to relief efforts. Having arrived less than a year before, and being on the receiving end of donations, the refugees, in turn, donated back to their new home. The effort made international headlines and became a point of pride for a province that is sometimes framed as unfriendly to immigrants.
The story itself demonstrated that Syrian refugees, themselves a lightning rod for much of the world’s growing anti-immigration sentiments, are excited to give back a country that helped them. It also demonstrated a successful integration, both culturally and economically, into Albertan life.
It is a sentiment held by Parkash Chhibber, who himself made headlines earlier this year for his generosity through his restaurant Indian Fusion. The restaurant, which serves approximately 1,800 free meals to the homeless out its back door every month, is part of the story of how immigrants give back, not just through taxes but by engaging directly with the needs of their new home communities.
Chhibber came to Canada in 2005 with only $10 in his pocket, and worked as a cook for four years before opening up his own restaurant with three business partners. “We started this restaurant in 2009, [when the] recession was hitting hard,” he recalls. “With no extra money, we survived with the help of our caring community. As a thank you, I have to give back to the people that gave me everything.”
Chhibber’s success is in part because of Edmonton’s community and business-friendly environment. He describes the opening of his restaurant as “very, very easy,” but it is ultimately Canada’s multiculturalism that has helped him settle and is making Edmonton better.
“Edmonton is the best place for new immigrants,” he says, “and new immigrants benefit Edmonton with the different cultures [they bring] from around the world. Multiculturalism is the beauty of Canada.”
That multiculturalism is steadily increasing in Alberta and Edmonton, according to data from the newly-reinstated long-form census released earlier this year. Immigration, it turns out, is now part of the daily experience in Edmonton, something you can literally hear on the streets. The city is home to the fastest growing population whose native language is not English or French, due in part to the Prairies becoming a desired destination for many immigrants. Over 17 per cent of Canada’s immigrants called Alberta home in 2016, up from 6.9 per cent in 2001.
Despite leading the nation in employment growth from 2011-2016, Alberta experienced a net loss for inter-provincial migration in 2016. Increasingly, immigrants are coming to fill those jobs. Thanks to programs like Canada’s Express Entry initiative, immigrants are arriving in Canada with higher education levels than ever before, but are also generally younger than in the past. The experience issue and, according to Statistics Canada, a “mistrust among employers” regarding education quality, is working against immigrant success, but Alberta, as always, is in need of skilled workers.
“Alberta has always needed skilled labourers and Canadians are less likely to encourage their children to join a trade, instead encouraging them to go to university,” Marty van Keulen, a Dutch immigrant who moved here in the late 60s, says. His business, Carpet World, is increasingly reliant on immigrants for labour, and he believes Alberta needs to be even more open in its immigration policies. “As an employer, I think we could do better to follow Germany’s example,” he says. “If we want to be a world leader, have a more successful economy and a bigger tax base, we could benefit from selectively allowing way higher immigration.”
Radhe Gupta is part of that influx of skilled labour. Coming to Canada in 1973 with a Masters Degree in electrical engineering, Gupta started in Toronto as an engineering consultant before moving to Alberta to take a job with Syncrude in 1977. From there, he and his wife founded the Rohit Group, a real estate developer and lender, in 1986. He says the key to his success, and the success of Canada’s immigration, comes down to Canadians’ openness. “The beauty of Canadians is that they embrace newcomers and treat them like family, he says. “Canada is one of the few countries where opportunities are limitless. Peers, education and the political system allow everyone, including immigrants, to prosper.”
Gupta also says immigrants bring something unique to the table that helps drive Canada’s economy. “The decision to immigrate is a difficult one, and the immigration journey is challenging as well. Because of this, immigrants have a strong desire to succeed in their new life,” he notes. “They bring with them youth, education, work ethic and unique cultures, all of which become a part of Canadian communities.”
Diverse communities also help Canada be more successful, drawing on the many different business approaches of its residents to create businesses that do things differently. “My family and I have grown our business [through] a combination of cultures – India’s family business philosophy and the Western corporate culture – and we believe that is a part of our success,” says Gupta.
Kazuo Adachi, who came from Japan in the late 60s, can attest to the benefits of blending cultures. Originally coming to Canada to obtain a graduate degree in biochemistry, Adachi moved around the country working for various universities, but encountered some challenges in academia because of his background. The “mistrust” Statistics Canada speaks of when it comes to immigrants finding work directly affected Adachi.
“When I was looking for a faculty position, I was told to my face that I would not obtain a position because I was not white,” he says. “This is something unique that immigrants who are not white face when coming to Canada. There is an undercurrent of that sentiment in this society.”
While Adachi did eventually find a faculty position, he moved to Edmonton in 1988 so he could incorporate his background into his career. “My choice to move to Edmonton and work for a company that worked with a Japanese pharmaceutical company was a very conscious one. I wanted my Japanese heritage and background to be useful,” he says. “At that point, half of my life had been in Japan, and it meant nothing, but working closely with a Japanese parent company helped me to use all of my ability, background and education.”
Today, Adachi’s own consulting firm helps market and license university patents from Japan to North America and Europe. “My background, both my ethnic background and my education background, helps people in academia in Japan and acts as a bridge to the business world outside Japan.”
Adachi is also quick to point out in Canada, “most of the time, if you are capable, they will take that at face value. “Certainly, Canada remains unique and its citizens remain quite positive and accepting of immigration. A survey released by The Globe & Mail this year indicated that eight out of 10 Canadians think immigration is good for the economy. Over 60 per cent also disagreed with the idea that Canada has “too much immigration.” Part of the reason for such positivity is basic demographics: more than a fifth of all Canadians are foreign-born, meaning many, if not most, Canadians have strong familial bonds with immigrants.
That said, the survey also pointed out that Alberta “stands out as the one part of the country where attitudes have become more negative.”
Keith Neuman, executive director of the Environics Institute for Survey Research, that conducted the survey, argued that Canada “[has] racism, and there are lots of challenges in terms of finding jobs – it’s hardly utopia. But compared to those other countries, it has been relatively smooth.”
If stories like Kazuo Adachi, Marty van Keulen, Parkash Chhibber and Radhe Gupta prove anything, it is that immigration continues to be an integral part of Canada’s identity and economic future. Not only are foreign-born Canadians driving innovation and entrepreneurship in Alberta, they are exemplifying the values of hard work and generosity for which Canadians are known outside its borders. Statistically, the face of Canada is changing and that has never been more exciting.