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“Manitoba city’s welcoming success story holds lessons for Atlantic Canada”

By Frank MacDonald

One of the themes organizers of the Georgetown Conference wanted addressed is the question, Are we welcoming communities? “We asked ourselves that question,” co-founder of the conference said, “and the answer is, yes we are…to a point.”

To explore the question at a deeper level, Laurie Sawatzky, Executive Director of Regional Connections in Winkler, Manitoba was invited to share with conference delegates the strategies leading to the success of that southern prairie community has enjoyed in attracting immigrants to live among them.

In 1998, the Winkler’s Chamber of Commerce and other organizations carried out a needs assessment and discovered that the city had lots of opportunities for employment but no people to fill those jobs. Fifty families from Germany migrated there. Today, 42 of those families still live in Wrinkler.

“That pilot project brought us our first critical mass,” Sawatzky said. In welcoming them to the city, each family was assigned a family to help them adjust to the changes and differences. From those beginnings we have people from over 100 countries living in the area.” last year alone added 1100 people to the population which has grown dramatically over the fifteen years since the program was begun.

Many of those immigrants who came to fill jobs in agriculture, in woodworking, in manufacturing, also bought their own entrepreneurial aspirations and have begun their own businesses.

The changes for Wrinkler have been dramatic. “In the mid 1990s, the school population was 2600 students. Today it is 4350, and three schools have been built in the past five years, and still 1000 students are in portable classrooms.”

With the success of the city’s welcoming program have come pressures, as well. Meeting the education demands is one, health care is another. The regional maternity facility was built to deliver 400 babies a year. In 2009, more than 900 children were born.

With the diversity of newcomers, there is also a language problem, with some classes having  fifty percent of student unable yet to speak English well. Sawatzky described the school as almost entirely English second language facilities.

To address the language concerns, the criteria now for bringing new families into the city now requires a specific level of English. The settlement process, the time it takes for a family or single newcomer to settle fully into the community, Sawatzky explained, is about three to five years for people with some fluency in English. For people with no English, that settlement period is as long as 10 years.

Another challenge the program has faced is the loss of its welcoming families program. In the beginning it was easy to find fifty families to help newcomers one on one settle in. Last year, the there were 250 newcomers, and the difficulty in finding assisting families became so difficult that that aspect of the immigration program has been dropped.

Still, the city of Winkler remains a welcoming place for immigrant families. The city’s policy is to buy a flag for each country that is represented in the city of population now of 10,600, up about 30 percent since the program was initiated. When there is a celebration, the flags of all those countries are flown as welcoming gesture.

This year, during a winter games celebration being hoisted by Winkler, the city’s chosen theme is multiculturalism.

What the repopulation success has also achieved has been to see the return of many of its own young people who had left the city for greater opportunities in Winnipeg or for education.

This result of increasing the rural Manitoba community’s population, resulting in greater economic fortunes, has been a theme running through the Georgetown Conference. How to offer opportunities that can offer the hemorrhage of young people from Atlantic Canada an option of returning home.

“There is a message here about being more welcoming and truly welcoming,” said one member of the audience about Winkler’s success in re-energizing itself through becoming a welcoming community willing to embrace its immigrant diversity.