Fleeing families get new start

By: Sandi Krasowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle-Journal

The Thunder Bay Multicultural Association is a key player in job placing immigrants arriving in Thunder Bay from war-torn Ukraine and other parts of the world.

At least 35 known families from Ukraine have arrived in the city with many more families that haven’t registered with the association. Cathy Woodbeck, executive director of the multicultural centre, says there are many families and individuals arriving from Ukraine that have already relocated here with their Canadian family members.

“Unlike any of the government-assisted refugees or the other refugee resettlement processes where we know of who’s coming before they come, this is a completely different stream and they arrive through a number of different ways,” Woodbeck said. “We may not see them here in our office because they may have come to (their) family, found a job and we don’t even know.”

She added that international students are a big contingent of immigrants that the centre doesn’t see much of at all. The students arrive on a temporary status of international students and are not permanent residents.

“It’s the same with the Thunder Bay Community Economic Development Commission (CEDC) Rural and Northern Immigration pilot. We don’t always see all of the approvals and the clients that have come through the CDEC’s pilot program because they might be already working in a job, they might have been recruited by an employer and they are probably English speaking.”

A partnership between the Multicultural Association, the CDEC and Resolute Forest Products has been instrumental in placing 40 Ukraine immigrants into job positions in Northwestern Ontario at Resolute’s Atikokan, Ignace and Thunder Bay sawmills.

“Resolute has really stepped up,” Woodbeck said. “The employer has just been outstanding and amazing and has been actively trying to recruit a lot of people when they come in. They have relocated a few of the people that we placed with them to Resolute facilities and they’re assisting them with everything including connecting them to the community, finding housing and peer support. It’s been a really great kind of collaboration.”

Woodbeck says they are seeing many immigrants arriving from Afghanistan and Syria as well. Finding jobs to place them in is “not difficult at all,” yet one obstacle remains before any training can occur.

“There’s work everywhere,” she said. “But the biggest barrier that still remains is the language barrier. Unfortunately, when the language is low, that really means more of a very low, entry-level type job. These jobs are service work like housekeeping, cleaning or dishwashing where English is not paramount. As soon as the language is a little bit better, we are able to (place people more broadly.)”

Woodbeck said Walmart is employing quite a few Ukrainian newcomers.

“We have people working in restaurants, we have people working banquet halls. They’re all over the place,” she said.

Learning the English language is paramount to moving ahead into training programs for certification. The more the individual commands the language, the better opportunities there are to learn and move ahead into better jobs.

Many Ukrainians are coming to Canada with already-established skill sets in a variety of different industries.

“But there is that Canadian equivalency that has to happen to meet Canadian accreditation and safety standards, and that all has to be taken into account,” added Woodbeck.

She said “everyone is in a different situation but generally people go through the levels of the language program for three years to achieve a real proficiency level, not quite the citizenship test level proficiency but, workable proficiency.”

The multicultural centre offers night classes and online classes for additional help and volunteers that assist in conversation circles.