There is no doubt the people of Nova Scotia are friendly, but are they truly welcoming?

Immigrants "often have difficulty gaining a foothold in the province," in part because of barriers that stem from "negative attitudes and even racism when it comes to welcoming new people into our communities and hiring people 'from away,'" according to the Ivany report.

On March 8, CBC Radio's Mainstreet will be at the Keshen Goodman Library in Clayton Park for Beyond Hello — a community conversation about how Nova Scotians can be more welcoming to newcomers.

Below are some thoughts from Miia Suokonautio, the executive director of the YWCA in Halifax.

Where are you from?

Some years ago when I was teaching in the Dalhousie social work program, I had a bright, passionate student who, despite growing up and living in Canada for more than 40 years, shared that she was always being asked where she was from.  

At the time, she was completing a graduate degree, had started and successfully operated a business in Halifax, spoke fluent and articulate English, had raised her children in the province and spent four decades here.

A few months later I ran into her at a community meeting on youth mental health. I witnessed four different people, at four separate points in the meeting ask her, "Where are you from?"

Again, she's a bright woman and has her wits about her. She's aware that her hijab sets her apart, that she's not white, that her name isn't Anglo-Saxon or French. Yet, at what point does she get to shed that micro-aggression question, that clear signaling that she doesn't quite belong here?

How many businesses does she need to start, children does she need to usher through the public education system, degrees does she need to earn to finally earn the right to be a Nova Scotian?

Is the problem her lack of integration or is there something else happening here?

Immigrant earnings gap

At YWCA Halifax, we see the effects of this type of marginalization of newcomers and racialized women who access our programs, including conversation club for newcomer women, women in supportive housing and our employment supports.  

In the face of persistent social problems, my first inclination tends to be to take a look at the data.

One in five Canadians is born outside of Canada. In Nova Scotia, more than 45,000 people are born outside of Canada, making up five per cent of the population. Almost all newcomers — 93.6 per cent — have either English or French language ability.

Yet immigrants typically earn less than Canadian-born workers with the same amount of education and work experience.

For example, the proportion of newcomers with a university degree who are in careers with low educational requirements — such as truck and taxi drivers, cashiers and clerks — has grown steadily over the last 25 years.

Employment disparity

The earnings gap between immigrants and Canadian-born men and women has also grown steadily the past quarter century.

Newcomer men earn 63 cents on the dollar compared with Canadian-born men. An average newcomer woman earns 56 cents for every dollar a Canadian-born woman makes.

These disparities signal a more complex issue than simply "failing to integrate." Maybe the discrepancy can also be explained by the disparity in employment and earning between Canadian-born whites and Canadian-born racialized peoples.

Similarly, once the immediate settlement needs of Syrian refugees are met —with great effort by Syrian newcomers as well as many Nova Scotians — will they achieve income parity?

And when will they be considered Nova Scotian?

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie puts it well when she says, "Culture doesn't create people. People create culture." 

What culture, precisely, do Nova Scotians create when we perpetuate income and employment disparities?  When we fail to recognize that asking someone, "Where are you from?" over and over and over again is actually saying, "You don't belong," over and over and over again.

Miia Suokonautio is the executive director of the YWCA in Halifax.