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The Multicultural Association: Bringing Our Community Together

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It’s more than meets the eye. It’s more than where cultures come to meet. It’s changing the life of local children – one tutorial at a time. The Multicultural Association of Wood Buffalo (MCA) does so much more to build community than we know.

Established in 1985 in support of disparate cultural groups, newcomers, and to “foster cross-cultural awareness and understanding,” as per its official website, the Multicultural Association has 20 organization members, and 50 individuals as members.

MCA’s After School Tutorial Program (ASTP) is integral in giving bilingual children necessary language and comprehension skills. The program focuses on help with homework; language lessons, reading/writing skills, and using vocabulary. The initiative is currently offered in Father Turcotte School, Dr. Clark School, Westview School, Saint Gabriel, and Timberlea Public School. Plans to expand it beyond these schools are underway.

Caitlin Downie, Program Development Manager, MCA, shares about ASTP.

“Children of immigrant parents often have difficulty comprehending language and math at their grade level. This affects their performance at school and impacts their confidence. The ASTP coordinator works with these students to build these skills and help them for an hour after school, three days a week for the entire school year,” notes Downie who is originally from Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The MCA also offers free transportation to ASTP students who live in the downtown area.

Neha Gandhi, After School Tutoring Program Coordinator says the best part of her job is “contributing to and shaping the lives of tomorrow’s adults.” She has been with the association for two years, and hails from India.

“Before I joined the Multicultural Association, it seemed like a small effort; I had not much heard of it till April of 2013. And then the extent of its reach and involvement with so many businesses, agencies, organizations and individuals - all working to promote the group’s scope of activities was amazing, to say the least. MCA programs have something for all segments of our community – adults, parents, children, new immigrants, and everyday people,” Gandhi adds.

Rick Thorne, Principal, Timberlea Public School, thanks the Multicultural Association for this program.

“The extra support received at the tutorial has had a demonstrable impact on the language acquisition skills and work proficiency of the students involved as evidenced by the feedback received from parents and staff but most importantly from the enthusiastic response of the students themselves,” Thorne notes.

“The program also serves as cultural bridge for these students as many of them are newcomers to the country who appreciate the cultural orientation information shared at these sessions. Students display more confidence and enthusiasm in their learning as a result of their participation in this program. Ultimately, the support received at these after school tutorials serves to reinforce the learning received at our school and we remain grateful for this resource,” he adds.

Doug Nicholls, Superintendent, Fort McMurray Public School District, agrees and applauds the initiative.

“We’re delighted with the strong partnership between the Multicultural Association and the Fort McMurray Public School District. This is just another example of how this association supports the needs of students in our community. Our students continue to reap the benefits of this organization’s commitment to our schools in numerous ways as it highlights the diversity and inclusion that is our district,” Nicholls enthuses.

Mary Thomas, Executive Director, MCA, has been with the organization for two years. She’s originally from Mumbai, India, and has been in Fort McMurray for six years. The MCA’s function, she believes, goes beyond bringing cultures together.

“We need to support newcomers to the community. This means you either retain them in town, or lose them. We try to give them the social network with cross cultural competency in schools, work, and the social profit sector.”

“We are so grateful to the United Way of Fort McMurray, the biggest funder of the After School Tutoring Program. We have two coordinators for the initiative, and approximately 25 students benefiting,” Thomas continues.

Diane Shannon, Executive Director, United Way of Fort McMurray notes, “we are proud to support the Multicultural Association as they develop relationships and appreciation of the cultural richness and diversity of all those who call Fort McMurray home.”

“We boast how invaluable the young students are who participate in the after-school program that provides homework support to children whose first language is not English. This helps them achieve scholastic success in Canada. Perhaps one of the programs that we are most proud of is the annual Multicultural Expo which has continued to blossom and expose all citizens to the vibrant music, traditions, and food of the many cultures in Wood Buffalo,” Shannon says.

Cross Cultural Parenting Program is another initiative building bridges. Facilitators “provide immigrant, refugee, and Canadian parents with practical knowledge and skills for parenting in Canada,” as described by the official website.

Phil and Linda Sovdi are the Cross Cultural Parenting Program facilitators. They moved from British Columbia to Fort McMurray 11 years ago, and have been with MCA for almost a year.

“The best part of my job is seeing the ‘Aha’ moment when a parent ‘gets’ the importance and magnitude of these little people in their lives,” shares Phil.

“MCA plays such a significant role for these people. It provides a safe place to come and ask the questions that need to be asked. It connects families that would otherwise probably never get to know one another. I was curiously pleased as I discovered the bandwidth of how much the MCA does for these families. MCA is really a one stop help shop for families trying to adjust in their new world,” he enthuses.

This adjustment to the new world is reflected in MCA’s other programs such as financial literacy, health and wellness, home ownership/maintenance. Then there are the multicultural cookery classes, which are bringing people together one cuisine at a time.

Popular events like the annual Multicultural Expo, the Alberta Culture Days World Meets in Wood Buffalo dance performances, and sundry seminars in collaboration with local groups – are indicative of MCA’s growth.

Cultural Competency is an important initiative on the agenda for MCA. A pilot program offered in collaboration with the Newcomer Inter-Agency Network made up of local groups, it’ll be rolled out early this year. The idea is to enhance the region’s interpretation and translations services by training bilingual individuals.

“We are getting a lot of support from the Ottawa-based Cultural Interpretation Services for Our Communities. Interpreters have to have skills, competency, and understand nuances of both languages. Confidentiality is key in interpretation services especially when it comes to sensitive places like the court, or the Family Crisis Society,” shares Thomas.

Speaking of skills, Krystell O’Hara, Event/Volunteer Coordinator for MCA says joining the group has meant growing daily.

“The best part of my job is that every day I am learning something new about different cultures allowing me to understand and experience culture first hand, things that you cannot learn in books. This experience has enriched me as a person and I have a better understanding of the struggles and dreams that people have when they come to this community - allowing me to help them more,” shares O’Hara, who joined the group in March 2014.

“After I joined MCA I learned that teamwork can impact a whole community, a team that cares and is compassionate is committed to the cause of making of Wood Buffalo a more inclusive community. There are many challenges ahead of us but we will keep working hard to make this community even more inclusive with all the colours that different cultures represent here.”

Indeed, the Multicultural Association is helping in accentuating our growing diverse population, which Thomas estimates is represented by about 100 countries. It’s helping shape the region’s narrative.

As Downie puts it, “the multiculturalism of our community is not something that is readily known by people outside of the region. When I told my friends I was moving to Fort McMurray over a year ago they were worried I wouldn’t find anything to do in my field of study. Instead, I found a diverse community that was in great need of programming and events that reflected its diversity. The MCA and many other organizations and cultural groups are striving to change the image of Wood Buffalo to one that recognizes the diversity and vibrancy of our community,” she says.


Kiran is a national award-winning communications specialist, freelance journalist, and social media consultant. She loves telling community stories, and is a strong advocate for inclusion, diversity, women’s rights, and multiculturalism. Got story ideas? Contact her via Twitter: @KiranMK0822.