Photographs, words and sounds

On immigration…


I am about to write something I promised myself I will never write.

A friend in Saint John, New Brunswick, who runs an interesting little media company called WickedIdeas, posted on her Facebook account a story about the provincial government urging everybody who has something to say about what New Brunswick can do to attract and retain immigrants to do so. I had this post in me for a long time, but I always thought that maybe I am holding too much of a grudge and that the time is not right to air all of it. But, since they asked, I’ll oblige.

We lived in New Brunswick for eight years. We moved there as starry-eyed newlyweds after driving across the country in a 1973 volkswagen SuperBeetle. It was older than either of us, rusty and packed to the roof with everything we owned including a bicycle. We drove for over 4,000 kilometres from Calgary all the way to Bathurst and we did not even have a shoe string budget. Probably the craziest thing we ever did.

Bathurst was an eyeopener in many ways and not good ones. I worked for an insane editor who did not dare to bully me, but he did bully everybody else. That is not what made us move. What made us move was the fact that my wife had rocks thrown at her as she walked down a path because she was an “English bitch” as one of the charming young men called after her. We moved because after we went to Youghall Beach on a Sunday with a pressman and his fiancé, I was summoned into my darkroom by his foreman who warned me not to socialize with those people because their class status is below mine. We moved because people called daily to ask my editor why he hired a foreigner and not a local person.

We lasted six months and than we moved to Saint John. It was better. We both had jobs and we made some friends – come-from-aways like us mostly, but not all. Those of our New Brusnwick friends, and you know who you are, you have no idea what your friendship meant to us because it was such an exception.

Our first daughter was born two years after we moved to Saint John. I came to work a couple of days later and the person working in the office next to mine walked in. She did not offer her congratulations. She did not ask about my wife and the baby. What she said was: “You know it takes three generations to become a Maritimer?”

Every once in a while I would get a call at work from somebody ranting against immigrants. My favourite was a lady from St. Martins who called me at the charity I worked for because she thought we helped a little boy from Afghanistan get a heart surgery in Canada that saved his life. Unfortunately, that good deed had nothing to do with us, but it did not stop her from telling me that all those dirty immigrants are just coming to take local jobs, if not outright steal from honest New Brunswickers.

My wife was an investigative reporter at a daily who had her work belittled and stolen by those who hired her. When she broke a major story implicating local businessmen and politicians in an immigration scam, she was told that she does not understand local business culture, being from away and all that. She was told not to write anything longer than 500 words without a special permission.

Our second daughter was born. Then the government canceled Early French Immersion program effectively denying educational opportunities to our children. That was in many ways the last straw.

On top of that, my wife’s workplace became downright abusive. At that point, I freelanced full time. I could get work for  Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian in the UK as well as on national and regional CBC programs, but not locally.

Our friends were experiencing the same brick walls of nepotism and cliquishness we faced. They started moving away. And so did we.

Let me tell you about our very first day in Newfoundland. We’ve never been to St. John’s or to Newfoundland and we did not know a soul here. That first day we went for a walk downtown to find the French immersion school our daughter was going to attend. We found it and liked it. We walked down King’s Road towards Duckworth Street when this grizzled old man ran out of his house and yelled: “Wait, wait, wait…” We were rooted to the spot not quite sure what the heck is going on – our five-year old standing beside us and the one-year old in a stroller. The old man came back carrying a giant polar teddy bear and he said: “I won this in a raffle once. I’ve been waiting for a little girl to pass by so I could give it to her. So, here you go.” My older daughter, hugging this teddy bear almost as big as she was, was speechless and so were we. I would stop and chat with this man sometimes after we moved into that neighbourhood – he did not remember I was the dad of the girl he gave that polar bear to a year ago. I am not sure he even remembered the incident. It was just something he did. I know his name. I know he would have preferred if Newfoundland became a US state rather than a Canadian province. I even made a photograph of him once.

There were many such incidents.

My wife wrote a story for Toronto Star on storytelling tradition in Newfoundland and for that story she interviewed actor Andy Jones – the same way she interviewed hundreds of people in New Brunswick. A month or two later, it was a Sunday and we were walking to Sobeys to pick something up around 2 p.m. when Andy came out of his house and said: “Come in, come in. I have a new puppy. The girls would love to see him.” We left close to midnight that evening after a dinner and an afternoon and evening filled with stories and laughter.

Of course, there have been terrible moments here. We had professional disappointments. We had a nasty landlord. We had a leaky roof and a wasp nest under the clapboards. We had a drug dealer on our street, but we worked with our neighbours and we made the neighbourhood safe again. Childcare has been hard to organize, and housing and food are expensive and there are days in March when you wish to be anywhere else but on this rock in the middle of the North Atlantic. And then a friend comes over and you have a cup of tea or mulled wine and you forget that the wind is blowing at 130km/h and the uncanny mix of rain, snow and ice is falling sideways as usual.

We’ve been here five years. People ask me every day where I am from. They don’t ask because they are angry I have a job, but because they want to fit me into the master narrative of this place or, if I am on Change Islands or Fogo Island, they simply want to know what is that my people fish. That’s what they are like, these Newfoundlanders. They somehow learned how to take what they like and share what they have with those who come from just about anywhere. They will teach you how to make fishcakes in exchange for a Mediterranean fish soup recipe or simply for a good story. They are comfortable with who they are, so they let you be who you are.

If New Brunswick wants to attract immigrants, New Brunswickers will have to make peace with who they are. They have to stop being paranoid about everybody and everything. The world is not out to get you, although there are some very rich folks among you you should keep a better eye on.

Immigrants are not some exotic species of a bird that you can attract by planting the right kind of a tree. You have to accept that we are no different than you. We are not less human than you or more entrepreneurial or smarter or dumber or better or worse educated. We want the same things you do: good neighbours, safe streets, jobs, decent housing, good schools that give our children an opportunity to be the best they can be. We may not speak perfect English or prefect French, but we might speak Croatian, or Urdu, or Farsi, or German, or Dutch, or Mandarin or any other of the hundreds of languages out there in the world. Make us feel like there is a place for us and we will share everything we have with you and be just as passionate about your province and your communities as you are even if we are not third generation Maritimers and even if our family did not come to New Brunswick shores on the first Loyalist ship or during the terrible tragedy that was the expulsion of Acadians. We will volunteer and contribute to our new communities if you give us a chance to build some stability in our lives without feeling like permanent outsiders because we have accents, darker skin, or sometimes wear funny clothes. Don’t expect all of us to be entrepreneurs – most of you are not. Some of us will be entrepreneurs, others will be teachers, and potters, and photographers, and chefs, and some of us will sell delicious samosas at the City Market.

What you do need to understand, though, is that treating us like outsiders even when we spend years trying to make New Brunswick home will make us leave and we will never come back.

My family, we miss our New Brunswick friends. We miss the City Market and the skywalk and the library and the museum and the Buskers’ Festival and every June our older daughter talks about the fair and the rides at the Harbour Station. We miss Canada Day and New Year’s fireworks over the harbour – they don’t do fireworks quite as well here. We miss our landlady terribly. She was like a grandmother to our kids. She was an immigrant, too and her kids are only first generation Maritimers so not yet a real deal, I guess. What we don’t miss are petty snubs, blatant nepotism and constant reminder that we are not part of the place we chose to call home.

If you want immigrants from abroad and from other parts of Canada, you will first and foremost need to be kind. It will make an enormous difference.


15 Responses to “On immigration…”

  1. Colin W says:

    I am sorry you were treated like this in Saint John. I can’t speak for northern NB, but I would assume the relatively small nature of the town was the cause and the lack of experience with immigrants the main factor in their behaviour. Still no excuse.
    I have lived in Saint John for a long time, and my family are also immigrants with an unusual last name. We have had excellent welcoming treatment from the residents of Saint John.

    I think you’re being a little narrow in your judgement of a whole province or even a whole City based on your experiences that you listed in this post. Some of those things seem unpleasant and I wish you hadn’t experienced them. I would bet there are myriad other people with different experiences here in Saint John, where people are remarkable friendly and welcoming, including immigrants. The growing multiculturalism in the City is heart warming and makes for us a better place to live in.

    I have also spent time in St. John’s and it is beautiful, full of interesting and fun people. Perhaps you have been fortunate, but there is plenty of backward insular thinking on the Rock too. Many “come from aways” are accused of taking their jobs, their money, etc. I can understand your views on your relatively negative New Brunswick experiences, and I am glad you have had better luck in Newfoundland, however to paint all of NB the way you did is insulting and patently false. The vast majority are welcoming and friendly. I am sorry you feel the need to publish something like this.

    • admin says:

      thank you for the comment. This was one of the hardest things I ever wrote because I do have good friends and acquaintances and former colleagues in New Brunswick who I really did not want to see themselves in this post. Of course that New Brunswickers are not terrible people. And I thought it’s pretty clear that I love Saint John. Always will. My children were born there and it will always be one of those special places for our family. I think Uptown Saint John is one of the most amazing places in Canada. A true gem and as a photographer I miss it every single day. But there are issues that need to be talked about. And a good start to it is to stop saying that this is somehow an urban problem or a rural problem. I never felt, for example, as an outsider on Grand Manan as weird as that may sound. This is not even a New Brunswick problem. If anything, it was just as bad in Alberta. And I think it was just as bad for the same reasons. These are difficult times and a lot of what we think about ourselves will need to be reimagined and retold. Some places are more successful than other in changing the narrative of who they are and making room in that new story for others. There are no easy ways to do this.

  2. Joanna says:

    This is an excellent read Bojan. Thank you so much for sharing. It has truly affected my perspective on this matter.

  3. shawn hayward says:

    Yet NB attracts thousands more immigrants than Newfoundland. Any theories as to why that is?

    • admin says:

      A few theories Shawn. This is an island. The climate is terrible. It is in the middle of nowhere and difficult to get to. It is very expensive. In some ways, the economy is highly specialized so more difficult to break into the labour market. Driving to Halifax or Bangor or Quebec is not a fun trip to do when you’re bored but a major planning operation.

  4. Mark says:


    Thank you very much for the post – an excellent read, and obviously delivered straight from the heart.

    I’m New Brunswick born and raised (loyalist stock on my mother’s side). I wasn’t aware of the specific issues to which you refer, but I guess that’s part of your point.

    What I have begun to notice for the last several years is a culture of small-mindedness that permeates life here. Any suggestion that the status quo change, even in some small way, and New Brunswick start to get pretty fearful pretty quickly. Maybe one can understand this given that, historically, change has not been particularly kind to us. If true, this may also serve to explain, but not excuse, some of your experience here.

    In any event, the status quo isn’t going to be amongst our list of viable alternatives for very much longer. We will accept and lead some degree of change in our lives here, or we will all pack up and head out to Alberta. We won’t even be able to retire here, because there won’t be enough income to support a healthcare system for a bunch of old folks.

    Increased immigration is only part of the change that will be required to save this place. You did us a good turn in writing your post so that we understand a little more of the challenge that lies ahead in this regard.

    • admin says:

      Thank you Mark. It is a difficult conversation and it’s happening all over the place. There are no easy solutions.

  5. Tyler says:

    I found this to be quite an interesting read and as I have lived abroad in different countries for several years I can tell you that this is not a unique NB or Canadian occurrence. As hard as it is, you will not always be treated as you may hope, or as you should be treated; but if it is a place you want/need to live it can be difficult to manage. However, it could also be said that your work situations could have had nothing to do with small-mindedness over race or being an immigrant; it could be just as much paranoia from yourself as you perceive from the locals. I say this because I had found it very difficult to find work in my field in NB as well, and you are right, much due to cliques and businesses that only hire the son or cousin of another employee, and a 3rd generation non-relative maritimer may be just as far out in the lurch as you felt. Just remember, as immigrants do not want to be painted all with one brush as job-stealing or not true maritimers, the majority of the population who are good natured people don’t want that treatment either, to be perceived as racist NB folk who don’t know any better and are the xenophobic capital of Canada. I hope that more can read your article and the ones who need it can change their attitude!-Thanks

  6. Patricia says:

    I am from New Brunswick but am currently living in Ontario and not by choice. If it were up to my family and myself we would be back home. Unfortunealty jobs aren’t as readily available in NB as they are here.
    I don’t want to be defensive or criticize your story however, wherever you go you will find people like that. Maybe because Saint John in so small it seems like more but when you look at the grand scheme of things, all of New Brunswick basically had the same population as Mississauga. So although you seem to run into situations (I agree unpleasant) it may just seem like more because the population is so small.
    Working in Ontario for the last 5 years, I can not tell you how many times people have asked me if I’m from the east coast. The first few times I was somewhat shocked thinking “do we look different”. No we look the same as everyone else. People always seem to know because of my personality, friendliness and kindness. I am I’m no way saying all Martimers have these traits, just as you should not say all of New Brunswick are narrow minded when it comes to outsiders.
    I flew to NB last weekend for my sisters surprise 40th birthday and as the plane was just coming in for our landing the emotions inside took over. Looking at the beautiful landscape and excited to be greeted by family and friends was overwhelming. I hated to fly back.
    My daughter too started French immersion in NB, we happened to be there the last year French was offered in grade one. Now living in Ontario, the town we live in does not offer French. Because I believe my children have a better chance at a future and career with a second language, whether it be French, German, Croation etc., my husband and I live 100 feet from our work but commit to driving 200 km a day so our children can take French. It is 50km each way, in the morning we drop them off and pick them up again in the afternoon. I believe NB should have early French again, after all they are the only bilingual province in Canada but I guess budget cuts have to made somewhere and it is unfortunate.
    Again it is unfortunate that you and your young family had some bad experiences I’m NB but we all have bad experiences in life. At least you are all together.

  7. Sure glad that when my grandfather came out from Liverpool to Moose Jaw in 1911, that the Cree didn’t spurn him, and that when he moved to Victoria after returning gassed and broken from Vimy in 1919 that the Haida didn’t tell him to “go back home”. Not too many of us here who aren’t “come from aways”, and I for one welcome all who wish to make their lives in, and their contribution to, this country. Come see me sometime, Mr Fürst, *anytime*.

    Best regards, your compatriot

  8. Kevin says:

    Thank you for this. My wife and I experience much the same thing in Saint John. My wife was actually born here, but had the audacity to live somewhere else during her pre-teen and teen years. We have made some very nice friends, but not many, and they are certainly the exception. That paranoia is beyond comprehension and insanely palpable.

  9. D says:

    I really enjoyed your perspective. The locals don’t want to stay, so what hope does NB have to attract immigrants.

    There is a local zine being published in SJ called “Hard times in the Maritimes” try to get a copy.

  10. Andy says:

    As an Upper-Canadian transplant in the Maritimes, I can relate to this article very much. However, like others have posted, perhaps it was the two regions in which you lived, rather than the province as a whole. I grew up in the Armed Forces, so I have dealt with the Come-From-Away attitude my entire life and maybe don’t notice it so much any more. We spent 3 years on The Rock, so I definitely relate to the good-neighborly spirit the author describes.

    I spent several years living in Moncton and made many good friends (including my wife) who are still close to me today. I found the people open and friendly. Perhaps it is because of the the massive growth that city has seen over the past 15 years and had so many newcomers to it (Maritimers and others). For work I had to travel to Saint John every week or so and definitely felt the attitudes the author talks about. Traveling through northern NB has always felt like we were in a hostile environment.

    Living in Halifax was another pleasant experience. Perhaps because of the growth there too. I’m not sure, but Haligonians have a touch of that Newfoundlander big-heartedness too.

    We have settled down in Amherst, NS. While I still Come-From-Away, my wife less so, the community welcomes newcomers and seems to understand that it needs ‘imports’ to survive and thrive.

  11. Jason Debly says:

    Thank you for sharing your experiences of New Brunswick and Newfoundland.

    I applaud you for writing a piece that is not politically correct.

    My father was an immigrant and we grew up in Fredericton, and I must say it is not the friendliest town either.

    I have spent time in Newfoundland too and I am astounded at how warm and accepting the people are of newcomers. I think it has something to do with Irish ancestry and traditions. The Irish have plenty of cultural experience at being treated rather poorly and they seem to rise above it.

    Again, thanks for publishing your thoughts.

  12. tonyg says:

    Many of my fellow New Brunswickers are idiots, and I apologize for your experience while here ;/. We’re working on it, but it’s a slow process.

Leave a Reply