A girl takes part in the Learning About Canada Summer Camp for Newcomers. Photo courtesy SMCDSB

Camp helps newcomers adjust to new life

  • August 4, 2022

While with students at a local park during a summer day camp for newcomers and their families, English as a Second Language (ESL) resource teacher Christine Ignas was handed a cell phone. It was the father from one of the families in the camp who wanted to speak with her. 

“A family from Afghanistan passed the phone and it was the father thanking me for taking time to spend with his wife and his children who were so valuable to him,” said Ignas. “He said it was very important that they spend time in this program and that he appreciates everything that was being done, to offer the opportunity to speak English and to experience the community.”

Hearing how touched that family was, and so many others in the program, has been equally touching for Ignas and other staff. In its pilot year, the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board (SMCDSB)’s Learning about Canada Summer Camp for Newcomers, run in partnership with Settlement Workers in Schools, is introducing recent immigrants to experiences everyday Canadians often take for granted. Board staff felt something needed to be done to provide greater support for students and their families outside the regular classroom setting. 

While the region regularly receives large numbers of new families, those numbers are on the rise due to various situations around the world prompting migrations to Canada, including the war in Ukraine. Participants also hailed from Nigeria, Syria and Turkey.

The program is geared to children and adolescents up to age 20 and their families. The camp allows newcomers to travel throughout the Simcoe-Muskoka region north of Toronto, learning how to use public transit and acclimatizing to the local community.  

Among their many excursions, participants visited the courthouse, met with officials at city hall and travelled to Georgian College where students got a sense of the post-secondary opportunities available in the local community. They visited beaches, hiked the Ardagh Bluffs and got a taste of rowing, canoeing and kayaking through clubs based at the Southshore Community Centre along with a history tour, scavenger hunt and hearing local Indigenous stories.

“We’ve done ESL credit courses in the past over the summer, but found that it was the experiential learning that was really the most powerful need for students who have recently arrived in the country,” said Ignas. “This was an effort to get out of the classroom and experience what does politics look like in Canada on the local level? What do Canadians do in the summer? What can you do in the city for free or experience at a local college? What does it look like? What does it feel like? All of these things that we talk to students about in schools, but then they don’t get to experience and their parents being new to the country may not have experienced it in the Canadian culture or style.”

Based out of St. Joan of Arc Catholic High School in Barrie’s south end, the program was part in-person and included some days of online learning to help students to navigate the virtual space.

One of the greatest benefits of the program, Ignas says, was the opportunity for students to build friendships and community with other young people who are new to the country, and knowing they are not alone.

“I think building those connections with other students with similar identities was the most impactful part of the experience,” said Ignas. “Being aware that they’re not the only students that are beginning to learn English and arriving in Canada with all of these linguistic and cultural gifts, but that there are other students and families like them. I think that piece was the biggest piece for them.” 

The Simcoe Muskoka board was able to tap into provincial funding to provide the program free of charge. Roughly 60 participants were registered in the program, more than triple the original goal. 

Given the value the program has added to the community, Christine Mink-Hiles, adult, continuing and community education and languages co-ordinator with the board, says they are working to carry the program forward into the future.

“This is absolutely something that would do well staying with us as something we can offer every summer,” she said. 

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