Our beginnings were modest. It was 1948. Europe was still recovering from World War II and its aftermath. Refugees were fleeing for a new, safer life and many of them came to Winnipeg. The Central Council of Social Agencies, a collection of helping organizations, realized that urgent assistance was needed for the many immigrants arriving in Winnipeg, and thus, the New Canadians Committee was formed. The Committee determined that immigrants faced four major needs: employment, education, recreation, and welfare, not differently from modern day immigrants and refugees.
Following the enactment of the Citizenship Act enacted in 1947, the Committee was renamed Citizenship Committee of Manitoba, and focused on citizenship ceremonies. Then, in 1956, Soviet troops invaded Hungary. Many Hungarians fled to neighbouring Austria, before moving to other countries – 38,000 of them to Canada. The Citizenship Committee was forced to act quickly and it did, helping 1,300 Hungarian immigrants find shelter, jobs, clothing, furniture, and other basic requirements. After that project the Committee, renamed the Citizenship Council of Manitoba, became less active. Part of the problem was funding; the Council’s facilities consisted of small offices – basically a desk, chair, and phone. Also, there were fewer immigrants to help. In 1957 Canada took in almost 300,000 immigrants; three years later the number fell to just over 100,000. At the time, the Council continued holding Citizenship ceremonies, but limited practical assistance was being provided.
However, in the early 1960s, the Citizenship Council of Manitoba flourished, thanks to the hard work of three determined women. Sonja Roeder came to Canada from Germany in 1954. Mary Panaro came from Poland as a child in 1911. Genevieve Brownell was an early active member of the Council, who continued after other members left. They understood that immigrants need more help than just initial support upon arrival and Citizenship ceremonies. Greater efforts were needed in finding housing and employment. But it’s hard to find a job if you can’t speak English, so language classes were required. And immigrants needed a place to go, to meet with other people who were experiencing the same issues and with people who could help them all. A physical place was needed where all this could happen.
In 1969 The International Centre was born. It started on Garry Street in surplus property provided by the City of Winnipeg. Longtime Winnipeg Mayor Stephen Juba, who was in power at the time, was a strong supporter of the Centre. We then moved to 406 Edmonton Street. Services expanded – language classes, a language bank, employment counseling, cooking classes, counseling, social programming, computer training, to name a few. But the biggest change wasn’t about services; rather, it was one of attitude. In the mid-1960s the concept of multiculturalism developed, which recognized that immigrants can maintain the traditions of their original countries while still being valued members in Canadian society. In the late 1960s the International Centre followed this ideal. Cultural events took place celebrating immigrants’ cultures, a precursor to what is now Folklorama. The Centre provided facilities for non-Christian immigrants to practice their faiths. At different times Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim services were held at the Centre, until these groups opened their own temples and mosques.
Immigrants weren’t just the clients anymore; at various times they’d be service providers, executive directors, and board members. One of the first was Linda Elefante, a Filipino immigrant who had worked in a local sewing factory. Trained as a social worker in the Philippines, she came to a social gathering at the Centre, started volunteering, and later became a valued employee, writing a basic English guide for immigrants. Ms. Elefante’s experience was unique; now it’s typical. Currently, over half our staff are immigrants, many of whom started as clients and/or volunteers. Our services continuously expand to reflect clients’ needs.
Faced with increased demand for our services, in 2009 we moved to 100 Adelaide Street, taking up three floors of a refurbished building that used to be a sewing factory that, fittingly, employed many immigrants. We acquired three times the space, and a new name – the Immigrant Centre. We now have more than 40 employees who speak dozens of different languages, in addition to English and French. We have also expanded our programs to better serve the changing needs of newcomers to Manitoba, including citizenship classes, English one-on-one tutoring, and computer classes, and we’ve diversified the resources and services provided within our Settlement and Employment programs.
The Immigrant Centre proudly serves more than 20,000 newcomers to Manitoba every year, helping them achieve their potential. We are grateful to all our current and former staff and Board members, for their many contributions to what we are today. Here’s to another 70 years of serving the newcomer community!