I didn’t experience truly brutal winters — the ones where your teeth rattle and face aches — until my first in Toronto in 1997. Having grown up in Beirut and Cairo, and despite eight years in England, I was ill-equipped to survive Canada’s extreme temperatures. I had never heard of a “parka” until my outdoors-loving roommate showed me one, and I couldn’t imagine anybody wearing something so heavy and unshapely. After the first cold snap, I slipped on icy sidewalks, and my ears nearly froze when I ventured out on a -20C morning without a hat.
How comforting, then, to know that the first batch of Syrian refugees sponsored by the Liberal government probably spent their first winter months without worrying too much about keeping warm. Upon their arrival, starting in December 2015, from camps in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey — where many had languished for years — officials distributed a grab-bag of items. The so-called arrival kits, which were later furnished to all 25,000 refugees targeted to be flown to Canada, included parkas and jackets for youths and adults, two-piece snowsuits for children and a one-piece version for infants. Everyone was also given an assortment of socks, gloves, mitts, snow boots and two sets of toques (one with a Parks Canada insignia). Along with the winter gear, refugees were handed children’s books and a copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in English, French and Arabic. Lastly, there were National Film Board of Canada DVDs loaded with short films.
Refugee kits have been a traditional response to migrant crises, especially on camp sites, for some time now. Their history goes back to the First World War when the Canadian Red Cross oversaw the collection and distribution of food parcels, packages of “comforts” (sweaters, socks or scarfs) and medical supplies for prisoners of war. Charitable and international aid organizations today tend to focus on kits of food and hygiene basics to provide temporary relief. But the Liberal government’s selection of items suggests a long-term investment and hints at all that’s decent and level-headed about Canada’s relationship to newcomers — at least during the welcome stage. Had refugees arrived six months later, during the summer, the warmer weather might have made their transition easier, but any kit would have been robbed of what made it truly Canadian.
Surviving a winter, after all, is the first test toward becoming one of “us.” Whenever I meet newcomers who tell me they’ve landed in this country during the winter, my immediate reaction is to advise them in the art of layering. These kinds of winter survival tips have been passed on from older to newer Canadians for centuries. They shape an important lesson of Canadian resilience: The country doesn’t come to a standstill when the temperature dips. A severe snowstorm may interrupt daily routines — cancelled school buses, rescheduled events — but life goes on. During a recent visit to Fort McMurray, Alta., that coincided with the season’s first snowfall — in mid-October, mind you — I witnessed Somali-Canadians carry on with their routine of meeting at the Tim Hortons on Hardin Street, their unofficial community centre. Not even the harshest days in January, one of them said, dissuades his friends from driving or walking to get their double double. His tip to me, the Toronto writer who underestimated Alberta’s weather? Leather and not knit gloves.
“We’re here to stay,” says Majd AlAjji, a Syrian refugee who arrived in Calgary in August of 2015. “We must fully adapt to the new environment — just like any other Canadian.”
There’s another endurance test that we have come to call the Canadian cultural identity complex. We live in a country that, by and large, relegates the work of its artists — especially film, stage and TV — to secondary status. On average, and excluding Quebec, Canadian films account for one to two per cent of total box office receipts in this country. The inclusion of a DVD of short films by the National Film Board of Canada, therefore, serves a bigger purpose than keeping Syrian kids entertained. For one thing, the DVD selection includes one set in English, another in French and a third without words. Nothing illustrates Canada’s commitment to bilingualism and inclusion as strongly as providing a third alternative that eliminates the need for both official languages.