Part 3:
Natural connections with diversity
Toronto Star, Saturday, June 20, 2015

Various programs bring multicultural perspective to GTA’s conservation areas

Yuki Hayashi  Special to the Star

CVC's Ashoo Anand, second from left, at the Terra Cotta Conservation Area with an ESL class from Mississauga's Dixie Bloor Neighbourhood Centre.

CVC’s Ashoo Anand, second from left, at the Terra Cotta Conservation Area with an ESL class from Mississauga’s Dixie Bloor Neighbourhood Centre.

It took many years – and an international relocation – but Malarselvi Sethupany and Sethupathy Kuppusamy are finally fishing. The Mississauga couple, originally from Tamilnadu, India, had always been curious about the sport, but had never picked up a rod and reel.

“In India, we lived near a dam, and on weekends, we’d go with relatives to swim and have fun spending the day by the river,” says Sethupany. “We’d see other people fishing, but we never had a chance to try it.”

Since arriving in Canada last year, Sethupany, a former biotech research assistant, and her husband, Kuppusamy, a mechanical engineer, have been busy adjusting to life in Canada. Along with setting up their home, that means everything from looking for work and taking advanced English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, to getting their Indian professional designations recognized in Canada and helping their son, Sharath, with his Grade 3 homework. Consequently, learning to fish wasn’t exactly atop their priorities list. But when Sethupany’s ESL program offered the chance to learn to fish at Brampton’s Heart Lake Conservation Area, they took the bait.

“When we heard about the Learn to Fish event, we said, ‘We must attend that!'” says Sethupany.

It’s just one opportunity at conservation sites that’s open to new Canadians – an already large demographic that’s on the rise: approximately 30 per cent of Canadians speak a language other than English. The Greater Toronto Area (GTA) has been dubbed the most culturally and ethnically diverse region in all of Canada, with more than half of the population born outside of Canada.

Yet newcomers are under-represented among conservation area visitors, and advocates say a lack of awareness and limited access are two of the biggest barriers. “The first thing that comes to mind when most newcomers think of Canada’s natural wonders, is Niagara Falls, not conservation areas,” says Ashoo Anand, multicultural outreach program Coordinator for Credit Valley Conservation (CVC).

“When I first started my job six years back, I was surprised to find there are so many conservation areas so close to Mississauga.”

Recognition of these barriers led CVC and its counterpart, the Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) to create outreach programs that include organized activities at GTA conservation sites. In fact: the TRCA has been engaging new Canadians in environmental initiatives and stewardship projects since 1997 by reducing language, cultural and economic barriers. CVC’s multicultural program started in 2009.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry-designed Learn to Fish program, which operates in conjunction with both the TRCA and CVC, is a fun, two-hour session that teaches aspiring anglers the essentials – not just how to fish, but how to do so in a sustainable manner. Students learn about fishing licenses, catch limits and proper catch-and-release techniques.

While the program has been offered to the general public for years – often during Ontario Family Fishing Week (July 4-12, 2015) – advocates identified a need to reach out to newcomers to Canada.

“During our initial stages of research, we have learned from listening to our ESL centre staff and participants that one of the biggest barriers during their settlement period is transportation,” says Shintu Cherian, multicultural program co-ordinator for the TRCA. “As a result we have allocated funds on a first-come basis for bus transportation. We’ve discovered this is a successful approach: when participants explore conservation areas in the comfort of their own group, they’re better able to learn.”

Once they have that experience, says Cherian, it soon becomes a family affair. “(When) they know how to get there; what to wear; how much it costs to get in; what are some things they can do at a conservation area, and all the practical information that empowers them to come back with their families.”

In addition to fishing, there is an array of outreach programs and hands-on activities, including Learn to Camp, Learn to Golf (which returns to TRCA’s Bathurst Glen golf course in September) and, in past years, Learn to Canoe. “There certainly is something for every outdoor taste,” says Colin Love, TRCA’s supervisor of outreach education. “Our ultimate goal is to inspire a connection and a passion in participants that they will bring back to their families and weave into their family traditions.”

The multicultural outreach program kicks off with a classroom session, so students know what to expect before their field trip, but also to raise awareness of conservation issues and culture. “We want to give participants the opportunity to value, protect and enjoy the green spaces throughout our region,” says Cherian, whether it’s as user-advocates, volunteers or, eventually, environmental professionals.

While conservation areas are exotic for some visitors, many newcomers discover a comforting bridge to their homeland. “This conservation area is very similar to the nature areas in my home country. It reminds me of Belarus,” said Nastassia Karnechyck, visiting Terra Cotta Conservation Area with ESL classmates from Mississauga’s Dixie Bloor Neighbourhood Centre. Karnechyck, who moved to Canada just four months ago, breathed deeply, declaring: “It’s so nice and fresh out.”

Classmate Klaudia Pikulska agreed with the assessment, noting similarities between Terra Cotta Conservation Area and a national park she used to visit in her native Poland. “I used to go there every weekend. Now I’m so busy: I work, I go to school, and I have no time, but I need to start visiting again,” she said, planning to return with her family.

Among the approximately 30 field trip participants were a handful of babies and toddlers. Terra Cotta Conservation Area is a particularly popular site for class trips because its trail network includes stroller-friendly routes.

The vast majority of students at Dixie Bloor Neighbourhood Centre are women, many of whom are mothers, notes Anand. Ensuring access includes making accommodations for kids, with all-ages attractions such as maple syrup festivals (Kortright Centre for Conservation, Bruce’s Mill Conservation Area and Terra Cotta Conservation Area) and Learn To Fish.

A trip to Black Creek Pioneer Village resonates with deeper meaning for many recent immigrants. One of the guided tour programs for ESL students called “Life in a New Land” gives participants the opportunity to learn about survival, how to build a community and how to cope with conditions in a new land.

“Many are able to draw parallels from the experiences and initial struggles of pioneers with their own challenges as newcomers to Canada,” says Cherian. “They go through different phases and challenges, and eventually, settle in.”

Back at Heart Lake, Malarselvi Sethupany was preparing to cast her first line. “Back home, I used to see the fish jump, and think ‘fishing would be nice to try.’ Now I will,” she said, smiling, as her husband and son stood nearby with their own borrowed rods.

Eight-year-old Sarath, a fan of Discovery Channel nature shows – especially ones about fishing – was stoked, thinking about the rainbow trout, sunfish, catfish and bass lurking in the water’s depths. “When you fish, you could catch a lot of fish!” he said, excitedly, before turning away to face the lake.