When he thinks about what it’s like to be a parent back home in Haiti, Enel Filsaime sees things that are similar but also different from being a parent in Canada, where he’s now lived for 13 years.
“They tell you that the Canadian culture is softer and there’s respect when talking to children. You make sure that everyone is involved in the conversation,” says Filsaime, who now calls Edmonton his home.
This is just one thing he learned in taking the Parenting in Two Cultures course, a program offered by the Edmonton-based Catholic Social Services (CSS), an organization that’s the largest provider of social services in Alberta.
With the pandemic, the need for this program — along with demand for many other CSS initiatives — has spiked significantly. Not only are familiarizing themselves with parenting in a new country, but they are also layering in the stress has added to their lives.
“Demand for this program has gone up by two-thirds since the pandemic began,” says Eoin Murray, the director of development and community relations for CSS. “This is positive, because it means people are engaging with the opportunities to learn and adjust to their new country.”
But it also means there’s more pressure on the CSS Sign of Hope fundraising campaign, which aims to raise $2 million by the end of 2020 to fund numerous initiatives, including the Parenting in Two Cultures program. “People need help more than they’ve needed in years,” Murray says. “And if we don’t meet our goal, urgent community needs will go unmet.”
In the meantime, the team behind Parenting in Two Cultures is working to meet increased demand by expanding the class to four different languages and overcoming COVID-related accessibility hurdles. “Before COVID-19, we had posters and classes in libraries and we partnered with other organizations like Parent Link centres. Now it’s harder because everything is online,” says Isolde Schmid, the team leader who facilitates the course.
Pre-pandemic, participants found the program the way Filsaime did: through a multicultural centre. When he learned about it, he thought it might help him navigate parenting his four children, who range in age from three to 19 years. “When newcomers come to Canada, sometimes they don’t know the Canadian culture. They parent their kids in their ways, but sometimes they can make mistakes,” he says.
The six-session outreach program covers a variety of topics around parenting as a newcomer, including learning about positive discipline, strengthening support networks and communicating effectively in both your family and the community.
“The main focus of the program is to shift the parent’s idea from behaviour control to relationship building,” Schmid says.
“What they teach is amazing. There are a lot of people from different backgrounds in the program — there are many different cultures there,” Filsaime says. “When newcomers come to Canada, sometimes they don’t know the Canadian culture. And they are parenting their kids in their ways, but sometimes they can make mistakes. So they teach you the Canadian culture to help you understand and adapt to the system.”
What he happily found as well was respect held for the countries both he and his fellow program participants came from. “They say in different places, there are different cultures,” he says. “And when you go to another country, you have to follow the rules and manage your family that way.”
In addition to supporting newcomers, Catholic Social Services also offers programs for people from all walks of life. The agency runs four shelters or drop-in centres for vulnerable women, dozens of homes supporting people with disabilities, counselling support services in Edmonton and Red Deer, and a host of other programs. In 2019 the agency served around 21,000 people, thousands of whom benefit from donations from people across Alberta.
In Edmonton, demand for the agency’s counselling services has increased significantly this year. Amid the economic challenges presented by the pandemic, the percentage of people needing pro bono support has gone up by two-thirds.
“COVID-19 has shown that while we’re all in the same storm, we’re not all in the same boat,” Murray says. “There are pre-existing cracks within our society, and issues that were there have been magnified and amplified by the pandemic, which is why we so desperately need people’s support.”