Nfld. & Labrador·Opinion

Not-so-new Canadian: How welcoming is N.L. for immigrants?

Sean Charters has now spent a third of his life in Newfoundland and Labrador, and feels he's earned the right to express his mixed opinions of the place.
Sean Charters surveys St. John's from Signal Hill. He moved to Canada from South Africa to pursue a career in marketing. (John Gushue/CBC)

On a mid-April Sunday, 18 years ago, I looked down upon St. John's from Signal Hill and wondered to myself, "What have I done?"

The snow covering was gone and the landscape was grey, brown, slushy and mucky.

Quite frankly, it was ugly.

The previous day I had walked through a deserted downtown with my family, finding only one open restaurant.

I was worried.

Two years earlier, in Johannesburg, a city of millions in South Africa, I had stepped out of my office and looked down the hallway.

Including myself, I noted that in each office was a person who had been directly affected by a violent crime. Business travel took me to other parts of Africa, Indian Ocean islands, the U.K. and Europe. But every time I returned home, I felt increasingly unsafe.

I resented having to carry a handgun for protection.

A close friend had started the process to become a landed immigrant in Canada and was encouraging me to do the same.

I did.

The path to Newfoundland

My thinking was that apart from many who had no choice but to stay, there were three groups in South Africa: people who decided to stay to make a go of it, ones who remained and constantly complained, and those who left.  

I struggle with the sense of gratitude many immigrants and refugees feel about being in a palpably safer place that precludes them from looking at their new home too critically.

Our landed immigrant process was slow, but successful.

Through a series of serendipitous co-incidences we arrived on the island of Newfoundland.

Immigrating is, quite simply, very hard work, and I soon found out that there was another group of South Africans: expats with romantic memories of their homeland tempting them to return, complaining about wherever in the world they were living now, and irritating everyone with tales about how much better it was back home.

I fought this impulse throughout the long rain, drizzle and fog-filled non-spring, as optimistic locals promised a great summer whenever there was a hint of sunlight. I avoided expat forums and made a point of forming new relationships.

The weather outside is gloomy…

To date, I've spent one-third of my life living in St. John's. The weather's still gloomy and the local positivity regarding it undiminished. I've long been a Canadian citizen and my daughter was born right here.

I've benefited from the legendary Newfoundland and Labrador hospitality, and every day I cherish my network of valued friends.

However, even my inherently upbeat personality is severely tested by an also gloomy economy. I struggle with the sense of gratitude many immigrants and refugees feel about being in a palpably safer place that precludes them from looking at their new home too critically.

I'm not offended by the term "come from away," but despite the recent, well-deserved positive publicity associated with the phrase thanks to Broadway, I have felt the insulting isolation that isn't always very welcoming to newcomers.

I wouldn't ban "CFA" from the Atlantic-Canadian vocabulary, as suggested by Nova Scotia MP Scott Brison

However, having had my business experience too often discounted and education credentials questioned, I do agree with his sentiment that "it's in our collective interest, economically and socially, not to use terms that reflect a negative view of people who choose to make Atlantic Canada their home."

A daunting choice

I recently made the risky decision to be self-employed, and to remain in Newfoundland and Labrador.

This daunting choice highlighted that something had changed in me a while back and I was finally admitting it.

Sean Charters has now spent a third of his life in Newfoundland and Labrador, and says he's earned the right to express his mixed opinions of the place. (John Gushue/CBC)

Being too grateful because you're safer in new environments causes immigrants to bottle up opinions. The latent stress — of being circumspect with your feelings about national, provincial and local political, social and economic issues, out of respect for those who've welcomed you — is very real.

In short, I acknowledged to myself that I had paid my dues and long earned the right to critically strong opinions about my new home.

To remain enthused, against the background of having to pay for dubious provincial and local legacy-projects left for us by populist politicians, dropping oil prices, slow job creation, no real economic diversification initiatives and frustrating bureaucratic quagmires, I made a list of more than 150 CFAs I know who are making a go of it right here.

The presence of African, Syrian and other refugees in our midst reminds me how fortunate we all are to live in a country with a rule of law. To equate my circumstances with theirs would belittle their hardships.

Checking out the other side's grass

"Self-employed" can, however, mean under- or even unemployed here, and it has taken the glow off this province.

Just so I don't start feeling sorry for myself, I'm humbled in my volunteer and substitute teaching of English Second Language to refugee come-from-aways. ESL students learning a new language as a means to a brighter future remind me that the grass is often greener on the other side.

Sean Charters found a sweatshirt with this graphic on the front and wears it proudly, sometimes even in summer. (Sean Charters)

I don't believe — and neither I think do any refugees — that this province owes us a living.

I do think that our being here, by choice or simple good fortune, may just be the catalyst needed to encourage us all to refresh our requirements of those political, social, business and religious leaders, who promise so much and deliver so little. At least hold them accountable and, at best, become that newer, more responsible leadership.

We all know that Newfoundland and Labrador expats would come home to live if only they could work here. I don't want to be part of a group who stays here contributing to a culture of complaint.

I don't want to be part of a group who stays here contributing to a culture of complaint.

If I had to leave for lack of work, I would be secure in the knowledge that I contributed to the economy and added value to the community. But because I know I'd shed a tear upon hearing The Ode to Newfoundland in some faraway place, I'd really prefer not to have to go.

The sentiment that "we've always done it this way" doesn't cut it here anymore.

Being here simply means the gloves are now off in terms of demanding more of myself, the people around me and, specifically, those who manage where I love to live. To help make this beautifully imperfect place better.

About the Author

Sean Charters is a marketing and communications professional, freelance writer, teacher and English Second Language instructor for refugees and immigrants in St. John's.

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