NICHOLAS KEUNG / TORONTO STAR
By: Nicholas Keung Immigration reporter, Published on Fri Mar 13 2015
A Sunday snowshoeing expedition is among the outings that introduce newcomers to the great traditions of their new homeland.
What makes you a “real” Canadian?
For some immigrants, at least, it might be the ability to actually enjoy a frigid Canadian winter, with traditional activities like skating, skiing, tobogganing, curling and making maple syrup. But how is a newcomer supposed to learn these skills?
The “Wintegration Club,” a program run by CultureLink immigrant services, offers one answer: immersion experiences in a Canada even many native-born urban Canadians may not know much about.
On a recent sunny winter Sunday, a group of 31 immigrant adults and eight children hopped on a yellow school bus for a 45-kilometre trip to the Albion Hills Conservation Area in Palgrave, an hour’s drive north of Toronto, to try snowshoeing, an energetic winter activity with a long history among Canada’s First Nations.
Bundled in bulky coats and boots, the newcomers — many from countries that never see snow — were greeted by a bubbly Lisa Ward, multicultural program coordinator for the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority.
“Make sure you put your tag on. We don’t want people to get lost,” Ward reminded the excited visitors. “This is exactly the weather we want, plenty of sun and not too windy.”
After cramming the 4,000-year history and evolution of snowshoeing into a 10-minute talk, Ward gave the participants an orientation about the park and asked everyone to put on snowshoes provided by the TRCA.
Snowshoeing was challenging for the first-timers as they trudged gingerly along the trail, feet wide apart, fearing they would sink into the thick snow.
But it also proved a perfect sport for participants to socialize and share stories while taking their time to marvel at the beauty of Canadian nature, far from Toronto’s concrete jungle.
As Ward led at the front, some tired of the “robotic walk” on the snowshoes and rested on the snow, while others took out smartphones and digital cameras to capture scenic images to share with loved ones back home.
“There is no winter or snow in Colombia,” remarked Johanna Colmenares, 32, a business manager who immigrated to Canada in 2013 with her husband, Dario Calle, 35, an industrial engineer. “The winter here is so long, and we would’ve just stayed indoors at home if we didn’t know about these activities.”
Elizabeth Hamulka, a CultureLink coordinator, said the program’s events are organized by newcomers themselves, from doing the research to making reservations, with help from Canadian mentors. The activities are free for participants and funded by limited private donations.
The immigrant settlement agency has long run a spring and summer program called Newcomers Explore & Appreciate Toronto (NEAT), and added Wintegration in late 2013, to engage new immigrants year-round.
“We want our newcomers to learn about Canada’s history and culture, and socialize and network with others. Sometimes they are so concentrated on searching for jobs, they forget to see other aspects of life,” said Hamulka, herself an immigrant from Poland and a first-time snowshoer.
“We would like to introduce them to our Canadian winter, which can be very different from the countries where they came from, with different customs and activities.”
So far this winter, the group has been skating, tobogganing and hiking, and enjoyed a bonfire. A curling event in Leaside and maple syrup tour in Oakville are planned later in March.
Volodymyr Prystai, an immigrant from Ukraine, said Wintegration allows participants to see a different side of Canada.
“In Ukraine, we don’t really have a lot of facilities for winter sports. Most people stay indoors and go to (Orthodox Christmas) festivals,” said Prystai, who joined the trip with his daughter, Angelina, 11, and her friend, Miroslava Kasitskaya, 9.
“This is a great experience to be introduced to the winter culture here. The cold could be challenging and depressing for newcomers.”
Ainoa Cerezuela and her husband, Guillermo Galan, said they enjoyed the snowshoeing, although they and a dozen other participants got separated from the rest of the group and were briefly lost on the trail.
“We don’t mind getting lost,” said Cerezuela, who moved here from Madrid, Spain, when Galan, a computer engineer, was transferred by his employer to Toronto. “Like immigration, it’s an adventure.”