Ottawa is a diverse, vibrant and cosmopolitan city that ‘genuinely welcomes’ newcomers, a brochure for Ottawa’s annual Welcoming Ottawa Week (WOW) declares. But is that really the case?
The Ottawa Local Immigration Partnership (OLIP) indicates that Ottawa is drastically lagging behind in attracting immigrants, compared to other mid-sized Canadian cities like Winnipeg, Edmonton and Calgary. In 2012, Ottawa attracted roughly 12,000 immigrants, compared to Calgary’s 29,898.
A 2010 study commissioned by the OLIP indicates that one reason for this could be that immigrants are often vastly underemployed in the capital – a fact that tends to drive immigrants away. Another reason cited is a lack of promotion of Ottawa as an ideal city for newcomers to settle in.
Enter WOW – initiated by OLIP in 2013, the now annual event is aimed at welcoming immigrants to the city and providing opportunities for them to engage with long-time residents. This year, WOW launched on June 22 with the third biannual Ottawa Immigration Forum, kicking off a weeklong series of dialogues, cultural activities and documentary screenings.
“Ottawa is such a friendly, warm and welcoming city that I didn’t feel like I was in a new place. All I had to do was talk to people and get used to the city.” – Grace John
One of the most pivotal events was a photo exhibition titled ‘Faces and Stories of a Welcoming City’ and depicting the “hospitality” extended by residents from all backgrounds to newcomers to Ottawa.
New Canadian Media spoke to several WOW attendees throughout the week who attested to both the positive and negative experiences they faced being an immigrant in Ottawa.
‘Ottawa is so Friendly’
Grace John, who works as a medical orderly, moved to Ottawa 25 years ago from Sri Lanka. She says, “Ottawa is such a friendly, warm and welcoming city that I didn’t feel like I was in a new place. All I had to do was talk to people and get used to the city. The people are so helpful and I didn’t have a hard time.”
When Carrie Cuhaci (pictured to the left, righthand side) moved here from United Kingdom 12 years ago, she didn’t know what to expect. She is originally from California, but moved to Ottawa from the UK because of her work. She currently works from home and finds that the only way she can try to make friends is by getting out and meeting people.
“Ottawa is a very active city. Be it winter, spring, summer or fall, people are always outdoors doing different activities. This was outstanding, because language barriers and cultural differences don’t matter when you join a running group. All you need to do is run,” says Cuhaci.
Rawan Dallasheh (pictured to the right, far right side) moved to Ottawa just over a year ago from Jordan, and is currently studying to become a certified pharmacist. She already feels like Ottawa is her new home. “Ottawa is so friendly. I love to talk to people and they make me feel so welcome and comfortable. It’s a good atmosphere here. People are professional and they care about others. I met many new friends when I started volunteering,” she says.
For Dallasheh, the level of accessibility in Ottawa for seniors, people with disabilities and pregnant or nursing moms is another winning factor.
“I went to City Hall once, and I was amazed and pleasantly surprised at how well planned the building was. I am a nursing mom and they had a special room for babies and I found this a quality of this city that it is very accommodating,” she adds.
‘Intimidating to a New Immigrant’
Others, however, have faced their fair share of challenges and setbacks settling down in the nation’s capital.
Mahesh Gupta came to Ottawa from India 15 years ago, with a dream of becoming a doctor. He was practising as a doctor in India when his cousin informed him about a job opportunity in Ottawa. He managed to immigrate within a year.
It took him many years to realize that he was never going to practise medicine in Canada. At first he was told to complete his Canadian doctor residency, which he did, only to be told that he needed to be bilingual – fluent in English and French. One after the other, he faced disappointment. Now he works as a medical assistant in a local doctor’s clinic.
“I was very disappointed that I was not accepted here as a doctor, but now I have come to terms with the fact that I will never treat another patient again,” says Gupta.
“I had a colleague, who was from an Asian country and she found it really hard to understand the water cooler jokes, hockey lingo, local chit chat, etc.” – Emma Conroy
Long-time resident Emma Conroy says she can appreciate the challenges some newcomers face. “I was born here in Ottawa and have lived here for 32 years. I think Ottawa is a friendly place, but there are some things that can be very intimidating to a new immigrant,” she says.
Conroy cites criteria around bilingualism, education and work experience in Ottawa as potential barriers a new immigrant might face, particularly when looking for a job. Not to mention – simply fitting in.
“I had a colleague, who was from an Asian country and she found it really hard to understand the water cooler jokes, hockey lingo, local chit chat, etc.,” she explains. “Unless you immerse yourself right away into the community and get to know everything and anything, one might start to feel isolated and misplaced.”