If you grew up in Charlottetown in the 1960s and ‘70s, a classic Island game of ‘who’s your father’ could reveal a great deal about each person in your classroom: their heritage, religion, political stripe and neighbourhood, among other things. Scratch many of them deep enough and you’d probably find a connection to your own vast family wreath. Today, however, the Island is seeing — and welcoming — an infusion of foreign faces.
“This year I have two international students in my class,” says Nicole Lukeman, a grade six student at Spring Park School. “One girl is from Iran and the other is from China. Last year, we had a bunch of international kids but they all moved to Toronto. But, there are still a lot in grade four in my school.”
She has experienced firsthand a situation that the Greater Charlottetown Chamber of Commerce is trying to change — immigrants coming to Prince Edward Island for a short time, then leaving for the bright lights of big cities like Toronto.
The Chamber is trying to change that by helping entrepreneurially-inclined new residents become more integrated into the Island business community. Last June, the Chamber established the P.E.I. Connectors program which is designed to connect new residents (who have been on the Island for less than five years) with local business leaders and their respective networks.
“We looked at the program that the Greater Halifax Partnership has to connect people with employment opportunities and adapted things a bit,” says Don MacCormac, the Connectors program coordinator. “Our program is designed to introduce people who want to buy a business, invest in a business or have a business idea . . . it’s to help them get connected to our business community.”
Referrals to the program come from a number of organizations including the Newcomers’ Association, language schools, and word of mouth.
“The pickup has been greater than we expected,” MacCormac says of response to the program which launched in June 2011. “We’ve assisted more than 40 clients with 100 connections.”
Lannia MacAleer has been one of the ‘secret weapons’ in the program’s success. She’s a native of northern China who fell in love with Islander Darren MacAleer. He brought her home for a visit in 2007 and she fell in love with the Island. By 2009, they had a daughter, Julia, and were looking at returning to Canada.
“We looked at Charlottetown, Ottawa, Toronto, and Vancouver and scored each city based on items such as lifestyle and work opportunities and Charlottetown kept coming to the top of the list,” MacAleer says.
Today, Lannia is helping to bridge the verbal gap between the Island’s English population and Chinese immigrants. “While (P.E.I. Connector’s program) clients have to have a level six in English competency, there are still many who need help. There wasn’t a translation service and many of these people wanted to get their businesses going.”
One of the challenges that the program has encountered has been the traditional Island tendency to keep one’s affairs close to one’s chest. Islanders are, by nature, private people; a characteristic which can make it difficult for newcomers to network effectively.
MacAleer says it has taken time, but she’s getting used to the traditional way that Islanders make connections. “They hear my last name and start making connections. My father-in-law, Wes MacAleer, is well known on the Island and they start making connections to him,” she says.
The primary role of the P.E.I. Connectors program is to act as a matchmaker. Clients come into the office, meet with MacCormac and MacAleer, and then their needs are communicated to members of the business community who have agreed to invite the newcomers to meet their various networks. It’s not unlike a pebble being thrown into a pond — the circles surrounding it get bigger and bigger incrementally.
Shawn Murphy, the former Member of Parliament from Charlottetown, a former president of the Chamber, and a member of one of the Island’s major entrepreneurial families, has taken on the role of ‘chief connector.’
“I see our role as a small cog in the whole effort,” he says. “The Island can be insular and many Islanders are uncomfortable when they move beyond their comfort zone. The new residents who are coming to the Island are very well educated and qualified. While our program is still in its early days, you’re starting to see successes. You’re seeing new shops, small restaurants, and some people who have invested in campgrounds and motels and cabins.”
“The kids are the ones who adapt the fastest,” Murphy says. “They’ll arrive and within six, eight months, they’re totally fluent in English. In fact, the population of Colonel Gray High School is between 15 and 20 per cent foreign students.”
What he feels needs to be communicated most strongly is that, once you get past the inborn reticence, Islanders are among the most accommodating people on earth. They love to help.
“We’re one of the few places where you can get lost, stop, and someone will give you a hand . . . if they can’t help you, they’ll send you to someone up the road who can.”
The effectiveness of the P.E.I. Connector’s program is showing itself in unexpected ways, such as its presence at the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market where pierogies and shawarma are taking their place among the potatoes and pickles. Grocery stores, such as Brighton Clover Farm, have their shelves stocked with foodstuffs that appeal to the Middle Eastern community.
One of the most successful immigrant communities to settle among the Scots, Irish, English, and Acadians on the Island has been the Lebanese, who first started arriving 120 years ago.
“When someone comes from Lebanon today, they know there’s a community here,” Murphy says. “They know they’ll be able to find a job, they’ll find people who speak their language, and they can make the transition. Our hope is that we will have similar leaders in our Chinese and Persian immigrant communities who will act in the same way, so that they
are supporters and magnets that attract people to the Island so they will establish businesses and stay here permanently.”