In Scarborough, high school students celebrate Canada’s newest citizens

March 16, 2017

At the Scarborough Civic Centre east of Toronto, the ICC Scarborough Youth Volunteer Committee is preparing to welcome 30 new Canadian citizens. It’s early and the wind is howling with the malice befitting a cold day in March, but the 30-odd high school students are all present. They’re organized, attentive, courteous. I’m offered a program as soon as I walk in the door, and there are several volunteers waiting to show me to the right room.

The committee has been working with ICC staff to co-organize community citizenship ceremonies for several years. The students come from schools all over Scarborough; they meet for weekly sessions organized by the ICC and its partner Catholic Crosscultural Services in the months leading up to the ceremony. The students receive training on financial matters and budgeting, but they’re also invited to dwell on the principles underlying the program; last year, Citizenship Judge Albert Wong attended one of the sessions to speak about volunteering and active citizenship. The details of the day — from centrepieces to food — are organized by the students.

Most of the students on the committee are newcomers themselves, and eager to help others new to the country. Andy Ma came to Canada as an international student a mere six months ago, and says he joined the committee because he wants to work with other newcomers. He’s confident and personable — “I’m good at communicating with people,” he says — and likes being involved in the community. During the roundtable sessions, he gently encourages a new citizen to share his story. “It’s just a conversation,” he says, reassuringly. The committee has given him an opportunity to develop his leadership skills and improve his English.

While everyone’s happy to be getting their 40 hours of volunteering for high school, there’s a real investment in the work.  Committee membership is (unofficially) limited to a term of two years to provide opportunities for as many students as possible, but many ask to stay on for a third year or more. Some of the young volunteers at the event aren’t even members of the committee, but asked to be involved in some capacity to celebrate the new citizens.

Jill Timtim — who moved to Canada from the Philippines in December 2015 — found her way to community citizenship ceremonies when a settlement worker asked her siblings to join the committee. Jill, who has a background in advertising and event management, was so inspired by the committee meetings that she decided to pursue a career in social work; she’s now working towards a degree in child and youth care. She says she has always volunteered in her community, and is drawn to working with newcomers due to her own trajectory. “Actually, my mom’s here too.” She smiles. “It’s a family thing.”

Just after noon, the new citizens and guests head to the rotunda for lunch. Some of the students are in charge of the food, and they take up their stations dutifully, pointing out the vegetarian options and handing out bottles of water.  The other volunteers are breaking apart into groups, the excitement of the morning giving way to a quiet hum. Now, they seem more like teenagers at the end of a school day. They mill around in groups on the stairs. They’re excited for pizza.

On my way out, I run into Alyssa, the anthem performer from earlier in the day. She’s talking to Jill, whom she met through their work with the committee; they have now become close friends. When I compliment Alyssa on her singing, Jill can’t wait to tell me more about her friend’s accomplishments, including a performance at last year’s ceremony. “And Jill performs too!” Alyssa chimes in. They support each other at every opportunity. The warm exchange reminds me that the committee is about more than volunteering or gaining skills for newcomer youth; it’s also about making friends.

Before I leave, I ask them what they enjoy most about community citizenship ceremonies. “The roundtable discussions!” The stories — they’re always so compelling. There’s something about sharing in the new citizens’ journeys that both find incredibly moving.

As newcomers on their way to Canadian citizenship, they’re both looking forward to their own citizenship ceremonies. “I want to be there some day,” says Alyssa. Jill agrees.



Interested in volunteering with the ICC? Contact us.

Watch an ICC community citizenship ceremony at VIA Rail’s Union Station in Winnipeg.