The first winters in Canada can be harsh. This program helps newcomers adapt


Paula Sofia Morales still remembers how fanciful her first snowfall in Canada was.

She remembers how the flakes of light landed on her hair and palms. She would even kick fluffy snow on the sidewalk for fun.

But as the freezing weather dragged on, the former international student found herself stuck indoors more often and couldn’t help but think of her family in tropical Guatemala, where winter is associated with rain showers.

“Before coming to Canada, I heard seasonal depression was a thing, but I wouldn’t understand it. I thought people were just a little too dramatic,” says the Torontonian, who came here in 2018 to study performing arts, arts administration and cultural management.

“As winter came, I started to understand, because it had to do with this loneliness and not having a family or a very tight group of friends in Canada. In fact, winter hit much harder.

For many newcomers to Canada, the first winter can be harsh and cold as they struggle to adjust to a new life and watch, from the sidelines, how other Canadians celebrate and embrace the season.

That’s why Alex Rand and his team at the Bentway wanted to offer a different winter experience to new immigrants arriving in the Greater Toronto Area.

The Bentway, a nonprofit that runs a skate track, events and activities under a stretch of the Gardiner Freeway near the Fort York area, launched its “First Winter” programs to explore the experiences of cold season new arrivals from Toronto.

“We wanted to reflect on the winter experience with fresh eyes and new perspectives. We consider ice skating to be a very classic Canadian experience. So we’re curious to go deeper and ask what it means to experience winter in Toronto for the first time,” said Rand, Bentway’s programming director.

« How can we celebrate this moment together and get people to focus on warmth, community and connection? »

Visitors skate along the Bentway Skate Trail under the Gardiner in Toronto

The series of events runs through February 20 and includes an exhibit of early immigrant winter stories, skating lessons for newcomers, a community meal prepared by immigrant women, a clothing drive winter and a public art installation by artist Shellie Zhang.

Coming from a country where there is no season like winter in Canada, Morales said she doesn’t know how to dress properly.

“You wake up and it’s gray. You look out the window. It’s nice but there’s no one outside. It’s like the world has stopped,” said the singer and songwriter, who shared her winter story with the Bentway.

Morales was on a tight budget and couldn’t afford to do a lot of fun things. In addition to long walks around her neighborhood, she played music on the stairs in her school dorm to pass the time.

During her first Christmas vacation in Canada, she was invited to spend a week at her roommate’s family home.

« They do their routine and you try to fit in. They tell you that you can do whatever you want, but at the same time you don’t feel free to do whatever you want, » Morales recalled. « It’s like a mixture of gratitude and loneliness, awkwardness and melancholy. »

But slowly she acclimated to the Canadian winter and took to sledding, hiking and enjoying nature in the cold weather with her new friends.

« Now when I think of winter, what comes to mind is a sense of renewal and a bit of reconnecting with myself, » Morales said. « You don’t want to let winter take over and waste four months of your year staying indoors. »

Zhang, an accomplished artist, moved to Canada in February with her family from China via the United States. While it is cold in Beijing, the Canadian winter is much harsher and the snow lingers much longer.

When approached by the Bentway to do a public art installation for the First Winter series, the idea that came to mind was a desire to be together and work to welcome newcomers and make Canada a home.

“I wanted to break that sense of isolation that people might feel during their first Canadian winter and draw people into this community gathering space,” said Zhang, who moved from Windsor to the city to pursue visual studies. at the University of Toronto in 2009.

“In a city like Toronto, it is increasingly difficult to find places to gather for free. It is an important and crucial piece that we also lose in winter.

Titled « Beacons, » Zhang’s art installation features five sculptures of metal and light around the bends – the formal name for the concrete columns supporting the elevated causeway — and metal components are cut into fire and flame elements. The light extension illuminates the details of the concrete structure under the highway.

« I’m changing that kind of urban, concrete-gray jungle into something a little more upbeat and bright, » Zhang said.

Pavneet Pal Singh moved to Canada from India in December 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pavneet Pal Singh recalls the first Canadian winter he experienced arriving in Brampton from India in December 2020, at the height of the pandemic, when he struggled to land a job in his country of adoption.

With all the health restrictions and confinement, he found himself stuck in a house with four other newcomers in the suburbs. Together, they decide to contribute and buy a ping-pong table to kill time.

Singh, an architect turned art exhibit producer, soon found a job as a delivery boy in a warehouse. Working outdoors taught him to wrap up in the winter – and to always pay attention to the weather so he could get up early enough to get his car out of the snow so he wouldn’t be late for work .

The cold temperatures haven’t stopped him from exploring his new home on his own. He also started running outdoors and joined a winter volleyball league. Last year he also started skating.

“I thought I was improving with the winter in Canada last year. I can’t wait for winter anymore. This season I have plans to go skiing as well and do other things on my to-do list,” Singh said.

Morales said feeling a sense of community can definitely uplift everyone’s spirit, newcomer or not.

“It’s important to reach out to others and be compassionate about what others are going through. Winter can be much better and warmer if we all get together.

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based journalist who covers immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung


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