by Daniel Leon Rodriguez in Calgary
Calgary is celebrating the best of its immigrant communities at the 20th annual Immigrants of Distinction Awards this month.
Immigrant Services Calgary (ISC) will host the awards show on Mar. 11. Krystyna Biel, the chief executive officer of ISC, says the award has become a way to close the settlement cycle of immigrants.
“We help them in their path to success, and we want to celebrate with them their achievements,” said Biel, who explains immigrants overcome many challenges in their integration process.
Biel has been involved with ISC for over 26 years. Two decades ago, she was a career counsellor with the agency. Today, she remembers the uncertainty of that first awards show.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” recalls Biel. The night of the event, the Calgary Metropolitan Centre was crowded with 350 people. The response of the community was overwhelming. Biel says since then the event and the agency has exceeded expectations year after year.
A growing immigrant population
In 1997, the agency had 40 full-time staff and 400 volunteers – speaking over 60 languages. Calgary, at the time, had 127,555 people from visible-minority communities, accounting for 15 per cent of the population.
Today, the agency has 120 full-time staff and more than 700 volunteers – speaking over 140 languages. By 2020, the City of Calgary projects almost half a million immigrants will reside there and 40 per cent of its population will be visible minorities.
In 1997, Peter Wong, then chair of the Calgary Immigrant Aid Society (CIAS was renamed Immigrant Services Calgary nine years ago), started the Immigrants of Distinction Awards – the first awards ceremony of its kind in Calgary’s history.
“It is a celebration of how we as Canadians view ourselves in the best possible light,” Wong told The Calgary Herald two decades ago. His goal was to dismiss the “negative spin” some Albertans had of immigrants.
The award was envisioned to promote diversity among businesses and organizations. The recipients exemplify the benefits of diversity, Wong told the Herald.
Back then, Hadassah Ksienski, chief executive officer of CIAS, told the Herald immigrants were facing an uphill battle.
“If immigrants are very successful, ‘they take away jobs from Canadians.’ If they are not successful, ‘they are a burden on society,’” Ksienski explained.
The power of immigrants
Josephine Pon, the chairperson of ISC, says the awards help to celebrate the diversity of the city.
“The awards show people that newcomers work hard and have big hearts,” says Pon. The recognitions help immigrants feel appreciated, and to create role models in the community.
Aritha van Herk, author of the award-winning non-fiction book Mavericks: an Incorrigible History of Alberta, says the Immigrants of Distinction Awards is an important reminder of the contributions of immigrants to Calgary.
“Without newcomers from all parts of the world, Calgary wouldn’t be the buoyant city it is,” says van Herk, who adds that immigrants inject energy, creativity and skill sets to the city.
Van Herk says most of the city’s population is made up of second-generation immigrants.
One of the most recognizable examples is the popular mayor, Naheed Nenshi, who was raised and educated in Calgary. “We grew him up in our city,” adds van Herk.
Another example is the honorary chair of this year’s awards, Wayne Chiu. He is the founder and CEO of Trico Home and was recently appointed to the Order of Canada as a “corporate leader and as a champion of innovation and social entrepreneurship.”
In 2008, Chiu and his wife founded Trico Charitable Foundation, which has supported many local community organizations. In 2014, Chiu who sat on the board of Bow Valley College in Calgary for eight years, donated $3 million to the school – the largest single donation in the institution's history.
Canada: A land of opportunity
Ziad Paracha, won one the youth awards last year. In 2003, at eight years old, he came to Calgary with his family from Pakistan. They didn’t know about the country, and arrived in March without a winter jacket.
“I didn’t even know what Canada was back then,” says Paracha, who thought he didn’t fit in his new country. “I thought maybe we should go back.”
As an immigrant, he felt compelled to do more. Over the last five years, Paracha has been a volunteer at the newcomers orientation week program with the Calgary Bridge Foundation for the Youth.
He is also the co-founder and current president of Ascovime Canada, and he volunteers at Foothills Hospital Long Term Patient Care in the neurological rehabilitation unit.
“It is always great to get recognized,” says Paracha. “Sometimes you feel like you aren’t as recognized as a member from a minority group.”
He says negative stereotypes persist across Canada. “There is still space for improvement.”
However, he adds, Canada remains a land of opportunity.
“Any immigrant that is perseverant and passionate about anything, it is guaranteed they will succeed.”
For a list of this year’s finalists, visit the Immigrants of Distinction Awards website.
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