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Starting small: Michelle Hassler on creating change where you stand


Guest post by Michelle Hassler

A 180 degree change happened in my life five years ago when I left the Philippines and started my journey in a new country, Canada. Fast forward to 2013—I was given the opportunity to work at the Prince Albert Multicultural Council (PAMC), a centre which provides settlement support assistance to newcomers. PAMC also organizes cultural events and activities in communities across the city of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. I started to learn a lot about how diverse Canada is through my work at PAMC; more specifically, I learned how diversity, racism, multiculturalism have always been very important and very serious issues in Canada. Through my work, I’ve also participated in many workshops, seminars, and discussions focused on these issues across Saskatchewan. As a newcomer, I feel valued and a strong sense of belonging—I was embraced and welcomed genuinely into my community in Prince Albert. But not everybody feels the same way as I do and I’ve certainly struggled to fit in and start a new life here; I know many other newcomers experience racism and still struggle to forge a life in Canada.

Whenever I read or hear about issues of immigration, diversity, racism and multiculturalism in the news, I would think, “I wish I can help; I wish I can share my experiences as a newcomer.” However I often feel defeated by the fact that I am just a regular person who happened to work at a newcomer support centre in Prince Albert, a small city miles and miles away from Toronto or Ottawa where decisions are made. I felt far away from where all the change leaders gather at big events and forums, sharing their expertise and ideas, doing the best they can to address issues and create change for a better Canada.

Nevertheless, my attitude changed when I was given a wonderful opportunity in September 2016. I was chosen as one of the ten Junior Fellows to participate in the 6 Degrees Citizen Space conference organized by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship. I was deeply honoured as I was the only Junior Fellow from Saskatchewan. I was paired with a mentor—Devyani Saltzman, Director of Literary Arts at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity—who gave important and critical feedback on my work. I was proud to represent Saskatchewan and share what it is like living as a newcomer and working with other newcomers in the prairies.

Yes, living in Prince Albert is vastly different from living in cities like Toronto or Vancouver. The cost of housing is cheaper in Saskatchewan compared to Ontario and British Columbia. Issues related to health, homelessness and addiction occur effect the community here differently and are influenced by factors distinct from other cities in Canada. This contrast is even more pronounced when it comes to issues surrounding immigration, diversity, inclusion, and racism.

Michelle Hassler on creating change where you stand

Attending a national conference like the 6 Degrees Citizen Space gave me the opportunity to learn how issues that impact my life play out nationally across Canada, as well as internationally, not just in Prince Albert or Saskatchewan. Even though the conference was overwhelming at first, I appreciate being able to participate in discussions and meeting other change leaders like myself. Working and living in Saskatchewan can be isolating; travelling to Toronto or simply going outside of my province is too costly and my organization cannot afford to pay for its staff to attend such events like 6 Degrees. Being part of a national conversation like 6 Degrees therefore effectively exposed me to other individuals and organizations that focus on inclusion, diversity and equity that I can leverage to advance my work.

This experience also made me realize that, although I’m far away from cities like Toronto, I should focus on my own small community and on my province first to make a difference. As Miles Atkins says, “Often I find that the right people are already in place, they just need to focus on the greater good to be energized, utilized and encouraged to work together.” I should leverage on my own experiences as a newcomer in the prairies as well as the connections I made with other change leaders to inspire inclusion and diversity in my community.