About 16 per cent of the population of Simcoe County is made up of people who have immigrated from other countries, with 20,000 new immigrants landing in the county in the past five years, according to 2021 census data released this week.
On Thursday night, the accomplishments of some of those newcomers were celebrated.
The 10th annual Newcomer Recognition Awards, presented by the County of Simcoe, took place at Tangle Creek Golf and Country Club, seeking to recognize the strides of immigrants and organizations that support newcomers across Simcoe County.
“While the numbers are very important, it’s the wealth of experience, the ideas, the cultural diversity that we see newcomers bring, and they help broaden our perspectives and strengthen our economy,” said county Warden George Cornell in his opening remarks. “It’s immigrants coming to Canada, Ontario and Simcoe County that are going to help us help our businesses survive and make our communities stronger.”
In addition to two performances by Toronto-based Iranian dance group Raha Dance, 10 individuals and groups were honoured with awards for the first in-person iteration of the event in two years.
Community Champion Award — Alasoba Kelsy Braide
Alasoba Kelsy Braide came to Canada from Nigeria as an international student in 2017 with her two children to attend Georgian College’s Orillia campus for its child and youth worker program.
Braide joined the Georgian College Students’ Association and became its vice-president of community engagement and organized the first Black History Awareness Week at the Orillia campus.
She became connected with the County of Simcoe through the Community Impact Project. She also volunteered at the Calvary Pentecostal Tabernacle in Orillia.
In 2021, Braide created a Facebook group called Orillia Black Community, allowing Black families to connect with one another and share resources.
Currently a support worker with Empower Simcoe, Braide is also a member of Making Change Simcoe County. Braide supports many multicultural events, including the first virtual Black History Month celebrations in Orillia. She also brought forward a recommendation to the city for an advisory committee on equity, diversity and inclusion, and now serves as a member of Orillia’s EDI Development Group, with a goal of bringing a multicultural festival to the city in the future.
“Five years ago, I came to Canada with one suitcase and I made Simcoe County my home. I didn’t know a soul,” said Braide. “A couple of people helped me, and I’m grateful for that.
“I do this because I think people need my help.
“Thank you to the Local Immigration Partnership for showcasing our gifts and our talents and bringing us in to this beloved community.”
Immigrant Youth Award — Pania Ghaneian
Pania Ghaneian spends her time volunteering for the Barrie Persian Association. Recently, she worked to promote the Mosaic Nights Festival. She gathered volunteers, organized vendors, and secured sponsors, recruiting 32 of her peers to volunteer for the event. Ghaneian also created content for the Barrie Persian Association’s social media channels during the 2021 #ITSTARTS public education campaign to reduce racism and discrimination.
She also was recently awarded the opportunity to serve as a legislative page at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.
“I would like to thank my family for their continuous support,” said Ghaneian. “This award is dedicated to all the hard-working Iranians around the world. Thank you.”
Immigrant Mentor Award — Kenta Shirakura
Kenta Shirakura came to Canada from Japan as an international student at Georgian College 10 years ago. Since then, Shirakura held several professional roles at Georgian College, supporting other international students by providing pre-arrival support and encouraging participation in the greater Simcoe County community, organizing group visits to local events and cultural celebrations.
Shirakura continues to support students in his current role as a co-op and career consultant.
He also volunteers for the City of Barrie, co-ordinating youth ambassador group delegations between Barrie and the Japanese city of Murayama. He plays an active role in the city’s international relations committee.
“I am astounded by this recognition,” said Shirakura. “I feel fortunate to have had many mentors who have supported me throughout my life in Canada, including faculty and staff members.
“This award means so much to me and I am eternally grateful.”
Immigrant Artist Award — Neda Mazhab Jafari
Neda Mazhab Jafari is a well-known artist from Iran. She holds a PhD in research of art, and was a faculty member at Azad University of Tehran and Kharazmi University of Tehran.
When she arrived in Canada, Jafari studied graphic design at Georgian College, where she graduated with honours.
Originally a volunteer greeter at the MacLaren Art Centre, Jafari went on to become an art instructor. Recently, one of her sculptures was profiled at the centre. She was selected by 13 judges for the Brightening Barriers project for the City of Barrie. She was one of six artists chosen to display her art in Barrie’s downtown, and was recently chosen for the Ice Hut Public Art Project for a winter art installation in Innisfil.
“These past four years in Canada, the journey to build a new life from scratch and get to this point would not have been realized if my family and friends hadn’t supported me,” said Jafari. “Merci beaucoup.”
Immigrant Entrepreneur Award — Dr. Rebeca Riojas-Ozturk
Dr. Rebeca Riojas-Ozturk earned her doctor of dental surgery degree in 1989 at the Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon in Monterrey, Mexico. In 1996, she obtained her National Dental Examining Board certificate in Canada and settled in Ontario to practice dentistry.
Riojas-Ozturk has been serving the Simcoe County region for more than 20 years. She is the owner of both Barrie Heights Family Dentistry and the BWG Dental Centre in Bradford West Gwillimbury.
Riojas-Ozturk makes it a point to hire staff from different ethnic backgrounds with no Canadian experience. Her team includes staff from seven countries and four continents. Her dental office sponsored a Bollywood Drive-in Movie last year, and this year she sponsored the Ethnic Mosaic Alliance Mosaic Nights.
“Thank you to my team and staff. Without you, this doesn’t work,” said Riojas-Ozturk.
Welcoming Work Environment Award — BMO (Bank of Montreal), Georgian Mall branch
BMO at Georgian Mall offers many newcomer services in various languages including English, Hindi, Mandarin, Punjabi and Tamil.
All employees also receive Learn from Difference training to build an inclusive workplace, and their leadership team members receive additional unconscious-bias training.
The branch supports newcomer clients participating in the Job Finding Club for Immigrants offered by Georgian College. Managers act as mentors and attend networking events to meet and get to know newcomers looking for work in the financial sector. They communicate regularly with staff from the Georgian College Job Finding Club for Immigrants and share information on upcoming job fairs, job opportunities and offer tips and advice for newcomers looking for work.
Multiculturalism through Education (Educator) Award — Roxann Whittingham
Roxann Whittingham is a graduation coach for Black students at Nantyr Shores Secondary School in Innisfil.
As an immigrant from Jamaica, Whittingham is well aware of the challenges Black students face, having encountered many adversities herself. She created the Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) Graduation Support Network Facebook group, which focuses on helping and advocating for students.
Whittingham has published three books: Johnny Lightning and the Magic Yellow Yam, Seasons of Love and Break Free, and owns the local business Ms. Hotty Hotty Foodz, which produces authentic Jamaican jerk marinade. She uses the proceeds from these two ventures to fund a scholarship at Georgian College: the Black Education Empowerment Fund.
She participates in local community groups such as Uplift Black, Parents Against Racism, Our Mosaic Life, and Georgian ChangeMakers, and speaks at local events.
“I’m happy with the decision I made to move to Canada, even though my heart is very much so Jamaican,” said Whittingham. “Canada has become my second home. I made the decision a long time ago to embrace it holistically.
“I’m very grateful and humbled.”
Ethno-Cultural Group Award — Ethnic Mosaic Alliance
The Ethnic Mosaic Alliance, established in 2019, aims to create a culturally diverse community by celebrating and embracing all cultures represented in the community. It has initiated in-person events for newcomers to the community after the pandemic and hosted the summer series Mosaic Nights.
Its membership is made up of partnerships with other ethno-cultural groups such as the Barrie Persian Association, the South Asian Association of Simcoe County, and the Bradford West Gwillimbury Diversity Action Group.
“We love the community we live in,” said Shelly Sarin, chair of the Ethnic Mosaic Alliance.
Service Excellence Award — Holly Hie
Holly Hie is the manager of employment services at Georgian College.
Hie established and grew the Newcomer Employment Services program area, which currently delivers the Job Finding Club for Immigrants and Occupation-specific Language Training.
Other newcomer programs Hie developed include Employment Connections for Newcomer Youth in 2013, and a three-year research project in 2018, titled Positive Practices Serving Newcomers in Employment Ontario Employment Services.
In 2021, Hie also led the development of a proposal currently in review to offer labour market integration, employment supports and mentorship opportunities to all newcomers.
At the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis earlier this year, Hie collected and centralized cultural best practices from across Canada to serve Ukrainian clients.
“It’s a really odd feeling to accept an award for something you intend to do quietly and thoughtfully,” said Hie. “My colleagues truly make magic happen.
“I feel grateful to have found an employer that supports and aligns with my personal values when it comes to improving employment services for newcomers,”
Youth Community Champion Award — Inform Islam
Inform Islam is group of seven Muslim youth on a mission to counteract Islamophobia and educate Simcoe County on Islam. Their goal is to help community members feel comfortable asking questions about Islamic traditions and religion. Through in-person and virtual events, they are encouraging cultural learning and inclusion.
In 2021, the group set up a table at the Barrie Farmers’ Market, offering free cookies, information on Islam, and opportunities for thoughtful conversation. Community members made use of the opportunity, appreciating the chance to ask questions without judgment.
Two members of the group, Umar and Sultan, spoke on the group’s behalf.
“When we started this, it was an excuse to get our 40 volunteer hours,” said Umar. “However, all around the world, Muslims have become victims to multiple Islamaphobic attacks.
“We have been able to combat Islamaphobia and raise awareness in our community. We hope to create a more educated and well-understood community that understands the problems.”