Irish immigrant turns childhood teasing into a strength

Calgary immigrant advocate Wendy Auger comes by her role naturally. Born in Ireland, her family moved to Canada when she was 12.

Wendy Auger now how heads Mosaic Family Resource Centre

Wendy Auger in her office at the Mosaic Family Resource Centre located in downtown Calgary. (Kaeliegh Allan)

In partnership with Mount Royal University's Bachelor of Communication-Journalism program and the Calgary Journal, CBC Calgary is publishing a series profiling some of the immigrants and refugees who moved here and how they're helping shape our city. 

Calgary immigrant advocate Wendy Auger comes by her role naturally. Born in Ireland, her family moved to Canada when she was 12.

"They always encouraged me to follow my heart," she says of her parents.

She says her family was "In some ways traditional, but in other ways not traditional at all."

Both her mother and father were artistic and played instruments and Auger remembers singing with both of them. tTheir home was creative enough that there wasn't much need for watching TV.

She also remembers having a lot of freedom as a child and had strong opinions on every subject, something her parents encouraged.

But that self-confidence suffered when her family moved to Canada, in part because she was teased for her red hair and accent.

But that experience sparked her desire to help other immigrants and refugees facing similar issues. She now heads the Mosaic Family Resources Centre in downtown Calgary

Auger wasn't part of her family's decision to move to Canada, where they already had friends and family. She remembers that lack of involvement being "kind of a challenge."

Their first home in Canada was located west of Innisfail, Alta.. At the time, she says the area was heavily Scandinavian, allowing her mother to reunite with her Danish heritage and language.

Teased and punished at school

Auger spoke Danish and, thanks to her father, some Gaelic. She  sounded different from others at school.

"I had an accent which was kind of interesting when I first came here, but not afterwards," she says.

The kids in school started to torment her, so she decided to leave her accent behind.

"I learned to be very neutral in how I spoke because I was teased."

Auger was also punished in school for being left-handed, something that was uncommon at the time.

She says if, "you had red hair and green eyes and freckles and you were left handed, you were going to be burned as a witch."

But because her parents reminded her to stay true to herself, she refused to switch to her right hand.

"I had a challenging transition time where I was picked on for lots of things, and I think in some ways that probably made me stronger," she says.

Proud to be a Canadian

As she grew up, Auger continued to miss Ireland and thought about how normal she would seem if she were back there.

Once she graduated high school, her grandfather asked her what she wanted to do and she told him that she wanted to go back home.

With his help, she returned for a visit. But when she arrived, Auger discovered "how Canadian I had become and not only how Canadian I had become, but how proud I was to be Canadian."

Years later, Auger then settled down and had three children. After her third child was born, her family moved to Calgary.

I had a challenging transition time where I was picked on for lots of things, and I think in some ways that probably made me stronger.- Wendy Auger

She remembers when her oldest started school. . Tthe teachers sent home a questionnaire asking parents to write down their expectations of how their children should be educated.

Auger thought this was a "phenomenal opportunity" and wrote what she says at the time, "would probably have been like a master's thesis."

The education ministry responded to her thoughts with a letter thanking her for her input but they didn't change anything. It sparked a desire to make a difference in early childhood development and education.

At first, Auger became a day home provider, so she could stay-at-home and raise her own children. She got involved with a movement to differentiate those providers from babysitters and get fairer pay. It inspired her to continue trying to make a difference.

Drawn to work with immigrants

Auger eventually ended up attending Mount Royal College to earn her level-three in Early Childhood Development, now known as a child development supervisor.

Her connection with an instructor from Mount Royal College who became the first program coordinator at Mosaic Family Resource Centre. gave her the opportunity to begin her career. Mosaic is part of Immigrant Services Calgary, which offers programs and services for immigrant and refugee families that face multiple barriers.

The first group to ever come to Mosaic was a group of refugees who were fleeing the civil war in Yugoslavia.

"I had my own experiences to draw on," she says. "I thought I was quite sophisticated and I soon learned that I wasn't at all."

Nor was the centre.

But Mosaic later became a model for similar organizations. Auger remembers a former Yugoslavian community mother saying, "'This is our Mosaic. We belong here.'"

A move to management

After nine years of working directly with families and being a team leader at Mosaic, Auger was promoted to the director position.

"It's a very different world being an administrator," she says. "I had to learn to like that."

Instead of working hands-on with clients, Auger now supervises all the operations at Mosaic, ensuring its programs run smoothly.

Even after 20 years, Auger still enjoys learning about different cultures from everyone who comes through the door at Mosaic.

She also appreciates hearing from families who say their children have grown up and become successful in Canada.

"It's a good feeling because you know you've had impact," she says.

Auger  also sees the impact the city has on her clients, who tell her how they have been accepted. .

"It makes me feel really good about being Calgarian," she says.