Manitoba Public Insurance has launched a pilot program to help prepare newly arrived Canadians figure out how to drive on the province’s often icy, snow-covered roads.

The new program breaks down a host of barriers new Canadians face when applying for their licenses — from obtaining ID and filling out the paperwork to taking written exams and getting real-world practice before they take their road test.

“These are folks, depending where they’re coming from, may never have driven a vehicle, may not have had access to driver training — even if they did would not know our rules of the road or know how to drive in our weather conditions,” said Ward Keith, MPI's registrar of motor vehicles.

Until now, MPI has only offered a high-school driver's ed program.

26-year-old Neetika Sharma

26-year-old Neetika Sharma immigrated to Canada from India two years ago and soon realized she needed a license for her job as an early childhood educator. (CBC)

It teaches 12,000 students a year how to drive, and it’s heavily subsidized. The cost of the in-class and in-car training runs between $400 and $500, but students only pay $50.

“Newcomers to Manitoba of course did not have access to the high school program,” said Ward. “We needed a driver education program specifically for this audience.”

That meant partnering with the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba to find out what could be used from the high school program and what needed to be changed.

Now, the pilot program is set up to take in 96 students a year with an affordable $50 price tag. There are already more people trying to access the program than can get in.

26-year-old Neetika Sharma is nearly done with her lessons. She immigrated to Canada from India two years ago and quickly realized she needed a license for her job as an early childhood educator.

But Sharma had only ever driven a motorcycle — in summer conditions.

“I never drive a car in India because there’s not really use for it in India because [motorcycles] are fine,” said Sharma. “Starting — it was a little bit tough, but now it's getting better.”

Sharma has to figure out street signs in her second language, get adjusted to different traffic lights and memorize new rules of the road. Not to mention navigate slippery, rutted streets. 

“Especially the left turn — very hard for me. Sometimes I go so curved, like so far, far away and sometimes I forget to establish myself in the middle,” she said.

Getting ID, finding co-drivers a challenge

Her instructor, Seid Oumer Ahmed, said the in-car lessons are actually the easy part. What’s more difficult for new Canadians, he said, is what comes before you get in the car.

“The number one challenge would be when they have to establish themselves with the Manitoba applications … establishing identity,” he said.

So, as part of the program, IRCOM helps them fill out the right paperwork, track down notaries and get the identification they need to apply for a license.

Driver's ed instruction in Winnipeg

The new program is set up to take in 96 students per year for the next two years. MPI will re-evaluate the program at that point. (CBC)

After that, there’s in-car instruction, which just takes a bit of extra patience, according to Ahmed.

The courses are offered in an ESL-friendly format, are slowed down and instructors are trained to check in with students regularly.

“Even for Canadians it’s very challenging to drive in wintertime. For newcomers in particular, they’ve never experienced driving in winter,” said Ahmed.

Another barrier? Finding people to practice with after the course is over and before new drivers take their test.

“For high school age [students], for example, all the parents committed to participate in home-based training. For the newcomers, even if you know someone who is willing to do the in-car training, they’re not even eligible to offer the in car training because they have less than three years driving experience in Canada,” said Ahmed.

Ahmed said the response from participants so far has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Coming to Manitoba, the lack of driver’s license is a huge obstacle for a lot of newcomers — just finding employment,” said Ahmed. “Once they have the driver’s license it helps them to find employment, that’s a huge significance when it comes to newcomers.”