Halifax, Canada

Welcomed in Halifax

Halifax Regional Municipality

May 2, 2019

A free transit pass for newcomers helps refugees access city services, get to work or school, and explore the city along with their new neighbours

When Canada announced it would resettled over 25,000 Syrian refugees, cities across the country began planning. In Halifax, Nova Scotia, the recently formed municipal Office of Diversity and Inclusion took a practical and comprehensive approach. They reached out to colleagues in other departments to ask what the city could do to welcome the Syrians, and other newcomers, better.

Like many cities in Canada’s Atlantic provinces, Nova Scotia has struggled with a declining population. Recently, immigration has been turning the tide, creating population growth for the first time in decades.

Welcoming means creating inclusion

The Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which also houses the Local Immigration Partnership, came up with a number of recommendations to provide support for the refugees in Halifax. Halifax Regional Council recognized that “the attraction and retention of refugees is also likely to contribute to the strength of Halifax’s economy and community and align with previous Council direction.”

These recommendations, while refugee-specific, built on an existing Welcoming Newcomers Action Plan. Key to its success was not only municipal government leadership, departmental action and broad municipal support, but working and coordinating with local immigrant and refugee-serving organizations, private refugee sponsorship groups and other interested community members.

Perhaps the most tangible public initiative was the creation of the Welcomed in Halifax (WIH) pass. The pass gives arriving refugees one year of free access to public transportation and municipal recreation facilities and programs (such as swimming lessons, summer camps and many more programs for all family members). Local museums and the Canada Games Centre also provided free admission and access to programs for WIH pass holders.

Up and running in time for the Syrian refugee arrivals in December of 2015, by early 2016 the program was running smoothly. According to Roberto Montiel, Coordinator of HRM Local Immigration Partnership (LIP), the intention was to make the WIH card available to to all refugees, not only the newly arriving Syrians. In 2017 WIH pass eligibility was expanded to refugee-claimants. The city works with Immigration Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS) and the Halifax Refugee Clinic to distribute WIH cards to new refugee arrivals.

As the Syrian refugee crisis dominated the national news, Montiel says it presented an opportunity to raise the Halifax community’s awareness of immigration and refugee issues. It was also an opportunity to increase newcomer-serving competency within city services. Among other recommendations, the city committed to providing sensitivity training for public-facing municipal staff to address stigma and stereotypes, along with promoting a more diverse workforce.

What has it meant for the newcomers?

In 2011, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities noted that “new immigrants are twice as likely to use public transit when compared to Canadian-born workers.” A 2016 FCM publication, Welcoming Communities: A Toolkit for Municipalities, reiterated the importance of access to transit and public spaces and recommended that, in order to “reduce isolation and support a sense of belonging, municipalities provide newcomers with access to public transit and public spaces such as libraries and recreation facilities. Enabling access to these services helps newcomers integrate into the community.”

Halifax’s Montiel agrees. The transportation aspect has been very helpful from day one for newly arrived refugees. Access to scheduled recreation programs has not been as popular, but Montiel says the municipality has learned that it is not as urgent a concern for refugees in their initial settlement process as easily getting around town. Recreation is accessed more after initial arrival and settlement and is important for integration. However, Montiel says that access to transportation has been key “for folks being able to get to their EAL classes, and to their programs and job interviews.”

While more formal recreation programs requiring registration have not been accessed as much, drop-in access to places like local museums and the Canada Games Centre have been popular among new arrivals. While these facilities have lost potential entrance fee revenue, they view the WIH pass as a long-term investment into attracting a new audience, many of whom live around the area. One Halifax council report indicated that the Canada Games Centre lost approximately $35,000 in potential annual revenue. However, the Centre not only expressed interest in continuing the program, but expanding it to asylum-seekers and claimants with rejected claims. The timing of the WIH pass aligned well and timed well with the Centre’s strategy to diversify not only their visitor base, but also their workforce. Museums have also seen an uptake in terms of visitors and remain committed. Montiel says that they see the increase in visitors and as positive.

Making a long-term investment for inclusion

The WIH pass and other efforts are a continuation of earlier commitments Halifax made in their Welcoming Newcomers Action Plan. They’re also an important illustration of how important immigration is for the demographic, economic and community resilience of the city and region.

Currently Halifax is developing an updated immigration action plan. They’re looking at how municipal services can be better delivered, develop better relationships with newcomer communities, and how to make their hiring and employment practices more inclusive.

Montiel says it’s important that the municipality plays a role in any local newcomer initiative. He says creating a welcoming community will not only be important for new immigrants and refugees, but for everyone.

As part of creating a welcoming city, they’re working with the local indigenous population to create relationships between newcomers and First Nations, as well as ensuring that African-Nova Scotian and Acadian populations are represented. The city also works with faith groups to create dialogue in the community.

Illustrating how local diversity is an asset is also part of the strategy. In 2018, Halifax held their first Multilingual Language Fair, showcasing the diversity of languages spoken in the city (including indigenous and other languages existing in the province for generations). It was a huge success, pointing to the need and interest in the city in creating spaces to build bridges between existing and newer communities.  Celebrating diversity can lead to further inclusion: “One couple who recently emigrated from Columbia, after failing to see their own culture represented at the event, have decided to invest in that capital. ‘Our Latin population is growing here in Nova Scotia, so I think it’s good to join our effort and start to build an association,’ says Diana Ortiz. ‘In Canada, people work as a community.’”

The demographic tide will shift in cities like Halifax because of the work of municipalities actively building welcoming communities with local organizations and residents. Committing to supporting newcomers is not simply the right thing to do. It is essential to ensure that the city and region thrives for generations to come.

Making it Work for You:

  • When in doubt, canvas your colleagues for ideas about how you can create a welcoming city. Innovative ideas can come from anywhere.
  • Know your audience. The importance of public transit to new refugees (and all vulnerable residents) cannot be overstated. Being able to have a potentially transformational impact on their lives can come from something as seemingly simple as a transit pass.
  • City governments impact the lives of all residents in a city, their active participation and leadership on creating welcoming and inclusive cities is essential for successful demographic shifts.
  • Creating social inclusion and making integration easier for all residents is as important as focusing on economic interventions. 

For this Good Idea contact:

Robert Montiel, Coordinator HRM Local Immigration Partnership
Office of Diversity and Inclusion
Halifax Regional Municipality
Halifax, NS, Canada,