By Allison Light
Around fifteen adults from all over the world sit in a bright classroom, eyes fixed on their teacher, Anita Sharma, who has spent the morning teaching them about navigating health issues and resources in their new home country. They’re at the Altered Minds Inc. Entry Program headquarters, where about 5,000 of the 12,000 yearly newcomers to Manitoba learn about assimilating to life in Canada, according to Executive Director Grace Eidse. This particular classroom holds the Express course, for immigrants with a solid grasp of English – they’ll go through the program in a week, while the English beginners will spend a month taking classes.
Sharma is explaining Canadian conventions on disciplining children, and how many parents may need to soften their parenting styles, even if corporeal punishment was habitual where they coming from. As she explains how teachers could report families if their children show signs of having been physically disciplined, a man pipes up from the back: “Back home, even if you’re caught by police, police will help you beat them again!” The whole room laughs – though they are from Pakistan, the Philippines, Israel, and elsewhere, most can relate.
“We are nobody to judge any culture,” says Sharma. “If your father disciplined you like that, hats off to him – that’s what he knew.”
The Entry Program was founded in 2005 as an orientation experience and English language boost for all newcomers to Canada, from wealthy economic immigrants to resettled refugees. Funded by the federal government, the organization offers classes in the morning, afternoon, and evening. The Express course spends one day each on Health, Employment, Laws, and Places to Go, with a final day for one-on-one private advising.
“Here’s the room where speakers come,” says Eidse, gesturing to a larger classroom. They get regular visitors from law enforcement, legal aid, employment agencies, and others. “Sometimes we’ve got 20, 25 languages going at once,” she says. “We had 194 interpreters here in September alone.”
Altered State Inc. employs about 20 people full-time, and many are former program participants. Faith Ugwu, who came from Nigeria with her husband, has only been in Canada for a year. She says the Entry Program is great at teaching the subtler social skills that new arrivals may not understand. For her, eye contact was the strangest adjustment. Back home, she says, “you don’t even look your dad or mom in the face.” Here, proper eye contact is essential for finding jobs and being polite in everyday scenarios. There are other, more tenuous, lines to be redrawn – household dynamics, for example. “For women it is completely different.” In Nigeria, Ugwu explains, men automatically were treated with a level of respect. But in Manitoba? “There’s no gender segregation.”
At the end of the lesson, Sharma writes a list on the board: 1.) Honeymoon 2.) Conflict 3.) Recovery 4.) Adaptation. These are the stages of cultural adaptation. She asks: “How many of you are in the conflict stage?” Various students shrug and noncommittally wave a hand. Vova Osmanov, a 23-year-old Russian coming from Israel, fully extends both arms into the air.
“I was a very open person,” he says, explaining that he liked being outside and hanging out with his friends. Here, the former has been made difficult by the cold, the latter by not knowing people his age yet. It feels like “you fall down with the face on the ground,” he says.
Sharma nods along. “It’s all part of the process”.