On a recent Saturday afternoon in Odell Park in Fredericton, I shared a meal with friends. There were skipping ropes and paper plates, Frisbees and photographs, bikes and babies. I spent part of the time pushing one of the babies on a swing, feeling the spring sun on my face and a wave of optimism about how my community is changing.
The Odell Park event was hosted by Fredericton’s Syrian newcomers as a thank you to a group called First Fredericton Friends. The Syrians brought excellent home cooked food, set everything up, and cleaned up afterwards.
There were a few short thank you speeches, which were nice, but we are all beyond formalities now. We made it through a long winter; spring is here and we were all in the park and happy to be spending time together.
The First Friends program is brilliant in its simplicity. People in Fredericton signed up with the Multicultural Association of Fredericton, got background checks, and when a Syrian family arrived, they were assigned to go to the airport, meet them, and be their friends. There were few instructions other than to carry on and do what friends do.
I’m not officially a First Friend, but I’m married to one. My wife and a friend of hers from work signed up and met a family at the airport on a cold January night. Since then, I have become a regular friend to a family of seven from Syria. Now I am a friend of their friends, and my network is now their network. We do a lot of things together, like hanging out in the park on a Saturday afternoon.
What the First Friends program did was make sure that when 350 Syrians landed in Fredericton in the dead of winter they were not alone. They had friends who helped them get set up, advocated for them, opened their hearts and homes to them. For the First Fredericton friends, it was a good thing to spend some time being invested in the well being of other people.
That Saturday afternoon in the park, it struck me again how urgently we need to change the narrative about who is a New Brunswicker.
We all know that New Brunswick’s population is growing older, and depending on the year, is either stagnate or in decline. The implications of this demographic deficit are fewer people in the workforce, a languishing economy, and more senior citizens who need support from government health and social services. We are closing schools and building nursing homes we can’t afford.
This demographic problem keeps New Brunswick political leaders and policy makers up at night, or if it doesn’t, it should. Population growth is the most important policy issue in New Brunswick and has been for a long time.
Unfortunately, for many years in New Brunswick there has been a false narrative repeated by political leaders and members of the media. (I heard a radio host say it the other morning like a reflex.) It goes something like this: We need to create jobs to keep our young people at home. (The last provincial election was essentially framed around this false narrative.) Too many of “our young people” are forced to leave home to find work elsewhere.
The narrative suggests that if we only managed to find a way to keep “our young people” at home, our demographic problem would be solved.
The problem with this story is that it is factually inaccurate and holds us back as a province. It distracts us from what we need to be doing, which is opening our doors to the world.
The reason our population is aging and in decline is that for many years we haven’t been having enough babies to renew the population, and for various reasons haven’t had enough new immigrants arrive and settle here.
Without immigration, the population in other regions of Canada would be exactly where New Brunswick is today.
Immigration is controlled by federation government policy. I ran into Fredericton MP Matt DeCourcey at the Odell Park gathering. He reported that there is movement in Ottawa on the immigration file. The fact that he took the time to attend the gathering in the park shows he understands the importance of this file.
Mr. DeCourcey told me it makes him proud to go to Ottawa and report on how this winter here in New Brunswick we welcomed more Syrian newcomers per capita than any region of the country and did a good job of it. Apparently we know how to welcome newcomers. Who knew?
So that’s another part of the false narrative we can stop repeating: That newcomers arrive here and then leave, that New Brunswick is not a suitable habitat for newcomers, but only for this undefined group we refer to as New Brunswickers, who are born here and have a right and responsibility to never leave.
I came to New Brunswick as an immigrant more than four decades ago. I’ve lived here and in other parts of Canada. I live in Fredericton now because I like it here. Where do I fit into this us and them narrative?
There is one thing we can all do right now. We can stop talking about us and them, about New Brunswickers and newcomers.
We need Ottawa’s help with the immigration file. I am optimistic that change is coming (we are in the midst of it now), that we will be receiving more newcomers in the future.
I had a glimpse of the future of New Brunswick on that Saturday afternoon in the park, and I can report that the view is just fine.
Philip Lee is a professor at St. Thomas University in Fredericton.