Multicultural festival organizer says cultural sharing — and jobs — key to life satisfaction

·3 min read
Tombolo Multicultural Festival Director Zainab Jerrett says Newfoundland and Labrador has never been as culturally diverse as today. (CBC - image credit)
Tombolo Multicultural Festival Director Zainab Jerrett says Newfoundland and Labrador has never been as culturally diverse as today. (CBC - image credit)

As the Tombolo Multicultural Festival wraps up for a 13th year, the festival's director says while the event has grown and become more diverse over the years, more can be done to keep newcomers in Newfoundland and Labrador.

With a combination of in-person and virtual events, including live musical performances, food and crafts market, cooking classes and panel discussions, Zainab Jerrett said the festival helps newcomers integrate fully into their community.

"What I really wanted, and still want, is for us to share our cultures, because that brings intercultural understanding," Jerrett said.

"We've seen people who are newcomers, not just becoming friends with the locals, but being able to feel that they're accepted.… This festival hopefully is making it possible for us to understand each other."

In addition to showcasing diverse cultures and traditions, Tombolo's most recent programming has incorporated more "serious" subject matter too, Jerrett said. This year's edition, for instance, featured a panel on anti-racism and inclusion.

"We are not political," Jerrett said.

"We focus on entertainment. But we felt we should extend our program or include other serious things."

Lack of employment

Jerrett said St. John's now — with increased diversity of food, music and culture — differs greatly from the days when she needed friends to send specialty hair products from the southern U.S.

It's also reflected in data from Statistics Canada, which shows the number of immigrants living in Newfoundland and Labrador increased by more than 50 per cent between 2001 and 2016, the year for which the most recent census data is available.

Tombolo Multicultural Festival N.L./Facebook
Tombolo Multicultural Festival N.L./Facebook

But while the increase in diversity is undeniable, Jerrett said newcomers still face one big hurdle integrating into their new lives: "Exclusion."

"A lot of newcomers aren't able to fit in, or get the jobs that they thought they would get when they arrived here," Jerrett said.

Two friends recently informed her that they would be leaving, Jerrett said. She estimates one immigrant family leaves about every three months for reasons more economic than cultural.

"No one has said, 'I want to leave Newfoundland because I'm being discriminated against or being persecuted or because of my religion or my colour. Truly, I have not heard that," she said.

"The main reason they leave, unfortunately, is lack of jobs."

A pathway to success

With death rates in the province projected to consistently outpace birth rates for the foreseeable future, the desire to provide a more prosperous life for immigrants is also a goal for the provincial government.

To that end, the Priority Skills Newfoundland and Labrador Program was launched in January to provide a pathway for immigrants with in-demand skills planning to settle permanently in the province.

In February, the government announced it would aim to attract 5,100 immigrants to the province every year by 2026 — three times the previous government's 2022 target of 1,700.

No one from the provincial Department of Immigration, Population Growth and Skills was available to speak with CBC News on Sunday.

Jerrett said the province only stands to benefit from the "brain drain" affecting her native Nigeria, as well as many other countries.

"So many countries are losing their talented, skilled workers, and they are coming here," she said.

"[What] if Canada or Newfoundland and Labrador took advantage of these talented or highly skilled people from all over the world that are already here?"

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