Province sets population records, but newcomers face challenges

By Jonathan Charlton, The StarPhoenix September26, 2013 - Charles Bikulo stepped off the plane in Saskatoon with his wife and seven children in the middle of a snowy March night. It was the first time he had seen snow in person.

Friends at the airport — doctors he had met seven years ago in Africa, and the only people he knew in the city — gave the family gloves and took them to a house they’d prepared.

The next morning, they went for a tour of Saskatoon.

“I couldn’t see how Saskatoon was, because everywhere it was snow. I thought everybody (had left) because I couldn’t see people walking outside,” Bikulo recalls. “I asked them, to make sure, ‘How come there are no people moving around, did everybody (leave?)’ They said, ‘No, this is winter.’ ”

He was also taken aback by the leafless state of the trees.

“They said, ‘No, once winter is gone, everything’s green.’ I said, ‘I don’t believe you,’ until I saw it happening.”

Bikulo’s family has settled in since then. His kids attend a French school where they can continue the studies they started in the Democratic Republic of Congo — the country whose violence the family fled. Bikulo has found casual work with unit support staff at Royal University Hospital — he’s in the process of securing work closer to his training as an orthopedic technician — and his wife is taking English classes.

The Bikulos are among the 24,922 immigrants who have arrived in Saskatchewan over the past two and a half years, helping push the province’s population beyond a record-breaking 1.1 million people.

Canada’s population has now surpassed 35 million, according to revised estimates released Thursday by Statistics Canada. The new numbers correct for under-coverage and incomplete counts on First Nations in the 2011 census.

“This is the biggest period of quarterly growth we’ve seen,” Premier Brad Wall said.

The provincial government has set the population as a way to measure growth. To that end, it has implemented polices around graduate retention, immigration and overseas engagement, he said.

“We’re going to be in the Philippines next week to sign that new memorandum of understanding with that government to streamline the process for more Filipinos to come to Saskatchewan. But you know at the end of the day, you need an economy — these folks need to have a job to come to, graduates need to have a job to stay to, and government can’t take the credit for that.

“Hopefully you stay out of the way of the growth, maybe you help set the right environment, but it’s really a credit to the fact that the world wants what we have right now; there’s some good fortune in that.”

While Statistics Canada didn’t break down numbers at the municipal level, in June the City of Saskatoon estimated its population at 246,300 — a 24,000-person jump from the 2011 census estimate.

On a busy day, the three or four staff at the city’s Newcomer Information Centre see up to 60 people walk through the doors, coordinator Ayesha Baig said.

In each of the last two years, the centre made about 6,980 contacts, either in person, over the phone or by email.

“Sometimes it’s challenging,” Baig said. “We just do the best we can and we do let our funders know we could use more help.”

People come to Saskatoon for a variety of reasons, but mostly for jobs, she said.

But, like Bikulo, they can struggle to get their credentials recognized.

“There are many entry-level jobs available and many people come in very highly qualified, having worked in management, higher echelons in their previous countries. It’s quite time-consuming to get those credentials recognized,” Baig said.

During that time, they take what are commonly known as “survival” jobs in retail stores or restaurants.

Another challenge is housing. Costs in Saskatoon have gone up “exponentially,” Baig noted. “A couple of people have actually made the comment to me, ‘How do people eat when all the money goes into the rent?’ ”

Settlement agencies have programs to help people find jobs, write resumes and get their credentials recognized. But some newcomers still come back to the office to let Baig know they’ve found a job closer to their field in another province.

“I don’t know what the statistics would be, but I do know anecdotally that people do get frustrated, they do leave,” she said.

For Bikulo, moving to Saskatoon was a good decision. He feels welcomed. Friends and people from his church help out when his family needs it.

“Now, my family and I, we can sleep. In Congo, nobody could sleep because of fear, every day,” he said.

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