Feature News

Saint John Training City Staff To Be ‘First Ambassadors’ To New Immigrants

Citizenship ceremony, Saint John, June 2018. Image: Mayor Don Darling's Facebook page.

SAINT JOHN – The City of Saint John wants its roughly 650 permanent staff from managers to outside workers to be ready for a more diverse environment by providing cultural sensitivity training through organizations like PRUDE Inc. and the Saint John Newcomers Centre.

Nearly 300 outside workers, which includes those in waste and water management, parks and recreation were trained by PRUDE in late November. The Fire Department staff is set to begin their training in the new year.

The training – the first phase began in August – is part of 35 action plans in a wider population growth framework.

“One of those [action plans], specifically, was to take a step back and look at the services that we’re offering and make sure that we’re considering the newcomer lens,” said Workforce Effectiveness Manager Leah Robichaud.

“In order to do that, as kind of best practice, we would offer this training to all of our staff so that they can just get an understanding of – an awareness of our own traditions and maybe some assumptions that we may have and just try to look at it from a different perspective.”

The city’s police force, which Robichaud said is technically separate from the city, also has a similar training as part of its orientation package. With the police, the total staff members receiving training is 800.

The training isn’t mandatory but the city has provided various training time slots over seven months for staff to sign up.

“We’re certainly encouraging all of our managers to review their employees and ensure that they’re scheduled,” Robichaud said.

The goal is to get 95 per cent of selected staff trained by the end of next summer. So far, 72 per cent of staff who have been offered the training have taken it.

The City’s Population Growth Manager, David Dobbelsteyn, said with more immigrants moving into Saint John, it’s important to ensure that employees provide a welcoming and inclusive service to all.

“We recognize that our workforce is often the first ambassadors that someone new to the city will encounter, and their opinions of whether Saint John is a good place to live, work and play will often be influenced by that encounter,” said Dobbelsteyn.

We want to make sure those interactions are positive. The goal ultimately is Saint John will be top of mind for newcomers looking at New Brunswick or ultimately, Canada.”

Dobbelsteyn said the city also wants to practice what it preaches to the business community.

“We can’t just simply tell all our businesses and non-profits and agencies to be more sensitive to newcomers and cultural sensitivity if we ourselves aren’t willing to do that,” he said.

The city is encouraging all major businesses to ensure their employees get cultural diversity training as newcomers are expected to fill the jobs left open when Baby Boomers retire. As New Brunswick faces population decline that results in economic challenges, immigration has been a key pillar in alleviating the problem.

“Ensuring their workforces are attuned to that reality, they’ll be able to respond more effectively to the changing business landscape,” he said.

‘Bridging Cultural Diversity’ Training

Li Song, the managing director of PRUDE, facilitated what the agency calls “Bridging Cultural Diversity” training to around 280 city staff alongside her Cultural Diversity Officer Sheri McAulay in late November.

Each four-hour session includes an average of 20 employees. The training consists of a presentation about demographic challenges, immigration statistics, relevant videos, guest speakers, a panel of newcomers or Saint Johners who have experienced other cultures or have had contact with newcomers.

They discuss stereotypes, discrimination, as well as verbal and non-verbal communication gaps. The city gives them some real-life examples, provided by staff through a survey, of incidents where cultural gaps may result in misunderstandings. They also discuss the concept of culture, its dimensions and why, at the end of the day, “fundamentally we’re all the same,” said Song.

We come to realize that, yes we live in Canada in here. But you know, in Canada, we have many different cultures. That’s why we have to be learning cultural diversity, be aware of what’s going on around.”

Even though Maritimers are very friendly, Song said that doesn’t always translate to inclusion. And many misconceptions regarding newcomers may hinder acceptance of immigrants, Song and MacAulay said.

For example, due to heavy media attention, people tend to think that immigrants are all refugees. But according to the latest census, only about one in 10 of newcomers to Canada are refugees.

The bulk of the newcomers to Canada and New Brunswick are economic immigrants who are either skilled workers or affluent people aiming to start businesses. These businesses often tap into opportunities that locals may not have seen, and they end up hiring locals once they’re up and running.

“Some of the things that a lot of the participants have difficulty with are things that they have heard or they think they know. Once they’re given the statistics and the facts, you can see the difference even in the way they’re receiving the information. To the point where they’re saying, okay I didn’t realize that I’ve never heard that before.’ That’s why it’s so important for the public to be educated,” MacAulay said.

The training provides a space to ask questions openly and allows participants to understand how immigration affects their personal lives and future.

“If we cannot make the connection, you’re going to have those comments of ‘I don’t care. I’m living my life, I don’t care about what’s going on. They’re too remote from me.’ But we have to make a meaningful connection to make people realize, ‘yes, I should be thinking about that for the future, maybe for my work, maybe for my future potential income,’ ” Song said.

“Myself and Li, we share that we are not delivering this information to try and change anybody…We can only offer information, suggestions, and ways for you to see things differently and to realize that what might be a norm for our culture is not necessarily the norm in other cultures,” MacAulay said.

“One of the things that we repeat over and over is the importance of when you recognize something being done differently than how you may do it, is to take a step back and pause before you react or behave and make negative assumptions.”