Like many residents, Paula Shields’ journey to Salmon Arm took her on a long and winding road, one she is happy she made.
Her journey began in Jamaica, in a rural farming community, where reading was a huge part of her growing up. In particular, she devoured articles about the world in National Geographic. Her favourite subjects in school were history and geography.
Then came university.
“By the time I got there, I already knew I wouldn’t limit myself to live in the same country my whole life,” she smiles.
After university she worked for an airline, where she was able to travel. She liked Toronto and decided to move there. However, it didn’t turn out as she had envisioned.
“In deciding to move to Canada, I was so excited at the prospect of going to someplace new, I never really sat around thinking about the road blocks and challenges I would face and how I would get over them…,” she says, adding that enthusiasm is common for those coming from other countries. “And I think that’s what drives most immigrants. I was a hard worker, resilient, enthusiastic and I moved to Toronto and I couldn’t get a job.”
Her lack of Canadian experience was often given as a reason.
“Suddenly, everything you’ve worked for has been stripped away because you’re starting from the very bottom,” Shields remembers.
However, she did see a position advertised in the small community of Dorset, Ont., five hours away. Perhaps the employer was as desperate to find someone to work in an isolated place as she was to find a job, she laughs. She was hired.
The people she worked for were wonderful and welcoming, although some in the tiny community were not.
“Here I was the only black person – it wasn’t a bad thing for me but other people would look at me and said things under their breath or had assumptions about me. Perhaps they thought I wasn’t educated or not smart, based on not knowing me, or not having met me, or things they had in their head.”
She eventually returned to Toronto, working on contract for the Attorney-General and then getting a job with a software company, as well as going to college at night.
“I felt more or less at home, had a stable job and one which I enjoyed.”
Finding a place to live was tough.
“You get on the phone, speak to the landlord and try to disguise your accent. When looking for housing, it’s better to sound as Canadian as ever.”
When Shields arrived at one place, the landlord wouldn’t allow her to view it. It was a painful experience, one which also left her angry.
“I was surprised – I spoke to this person (on the phone) half an hour before, and half an hour later they were unwilling to show me the place.”
Shields later visited Vancouver, where she fell in love with Stanley Park, and loved being near the ocean again. When a position came up in Burnaby with the company she was working for, she jumped at it.
Once there she also began volunteering with the city’s Citizen Support Services, shopping for housebound seniors. That was 2007 and Shields is still volunteering with some of the same seniors, gathering the grocery lists by phone each week and sending them to volunteer shoppers in Burnaby.
Shields and her spouse, who she met in 2008, came to Salmon Arm when his family-owned business, which provides parts for manufacturing, decided to open a branch here.
Since then, Shields has volunteered with Okanagan College teaching English and tutoring math, as well as coordinating volunteers for Shuswap Theatre. She is vice-president of the Shuswap Settlement Services Society, using her years of experience to build bridges between newcomers and people who have lived here for generations.
“I wish when I’d moved to Toronto there was such a place offering to help immigrants settle into the country,” she muses.
With her farming background, Shields loves Salmon Arm.
“The gains are really great, I love the outdoors, I love living in a small place, I feel I can contribute a little bit more than living in Vancouver.”
She says the only negative thing is she hasn’t been able to find paid work.
“The other little things, I deal with them in my own way, I don’t let them dampen my spirit,” she says, noting for instance that people will sometimes grill her on what she’s doing here, why she left Jamaica.
“Sometimes I think people who have never experienced racism don’t fully understand how powerful it is and how negative it is. It damages the community. Sometimes people think they’re being protective and have their own justification. There isn’t any justification for excluding people or treating people badly.”
Shields is quick to add she doesn’t feel negative about Salmon Arm. She tells her story to help explain that newcomers to Canada have resilience and courage, want to be welcomed and to participate fully. They also help keep the economy going.
“It’s beneficial if more people move here and help the community to grow.”
To learn more about services for new immigrants, or to become part of a Community Conversation about Salmon Arm that’s open to all, go to the Shuswap Settlement Services website or phone 250-804-2726.