Making Nova Scotia better for newcomers



s Nova Scotians prepared to welcome Syrian refugees in late 2015, the Bayers Lake building that formerly housed a Rona was set up as a donation space to provide refugees with things like clothing, toiletries and furniture. Organizers shut it down less than a month later because they received more supplies than needed. “You wouldn’t have seen that 20 years ago,” says immigration lawyer Lee Cohen.
While Cohen is the face of immigration law in Nova Scotia, that wasn’t always his practice area. After getting his law degree from Dalhousie in 1980, he began doing criminal and family law, but didn’t love it.
Things changed in July 1987 when a boatload of Indian refugees (173 Sikh men and a woman) landed in Shelburne County. The World Sikh Organization hired a Toronto lawyer to act as counsel for the refugees. The situation intrigued Cohen, so he contacted the lawyer to volunteer his services, even though he didn’t have any immigration-law experience. After some persistence, the Toronto lawyer agreed to let Cohen come on board. After a few days, the lawyer went back to Toronto because he had a practice to manage.
The refugees became Cohen’s clients.
The anger some Nova Scotians had for them appalled him. As global media descended on Nova Scotia, Cohen would often do scrums outside. “It was very, very ugly what was happening,” he says. “A lot of people driving by and walking by would say very horrible things about my brown clients and were saying very horrible things about me, anti-Semitic stuff. I was just blown away by how racist the whole thing was.”
The sanitized version of what people were saying to the refugees was: go home. People said the same thing to Cohen, who’s originally from New Brunswick. Cohen brought on lawyers he knew and articling students to help out. Eventually, the 174 refugees were able to stay in Canada.
Attitudes toward immigration have changed in Nova Scotia since then. In late December, the province released data from Corporate Research Associates that found 85% of Nova Scotians surveyed believed immigration is good for the province. One year before, the number was 36%. Immigration Minister Lena Metlege Diab says she was “jumping for joy” after she found out about the results. “This is a huge step forward and it’s one that we really need to celebrate and talk about,” she says.
A huge step maybe, but not the last step. “I think it would be wrong for me to say it’s not better, [but] it would also be wrong for me to say it’s good,” Cohen says.

Immigration Minister Lena Metlege Diab.

Nova Scotia is more multicultural today; people realize that people from different cultures share their aspirations: having a roof over their heads, a bed to sleep in, food to eat, job opportunities and a good education for their kids. But he sees how hard those people have to fight for their share of the Canadian dream.
As Cohen built his legal practice, he worked in his West End Halifax home. This reduced his overhead so he could discount fees. He says clients have paid him in food countless times. Before he moved to an off-site office, Cohen would often find bags hanging on his front door filled with foods such as samosas and pakoras.
Cohen says there’s a simple thing Nova Scotians can do to make our province more welcoming to newcomers. “I have heard this refrain over and over for 30 years: Canadians are very friendly when we bump into people on the street we’ve met before … but they would say, ‘I can’t get into anybody’s home. I’m never invited in for a tea and some cake,’” says Cohen. The symbolism of Cohen meeting in his home with clients meant a great deal to them.
Aseel Ali came to Halifax in March 2014 as a refugee from Syria with her parents and sister. She loves living here but would like to see businesses be more open to hiring immigrants. “Don’t look to the language,” she says. “Don’t look to the accent. They will absolutely do a great job.” When Ali came to Nova Scotia, she only spoke Arabic. Today, she speaks fluent English and works as the volunteer-program co-ordinator for the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS).

Aseel Ali, volunteer-program co-ordinator with ISANS.

Ali says when you’re an immigrant and don’t speak the language, every day is a challenge. “It’s really hard,” she says. “You have to deal with it everyday without demanding an interpreter or any support. You have to work hard to … go shopping, to live, to communicate with people.”
Since taking office in late 2015, the federal Liberals have introduced policy changes that have made Canada more pro-immigration, but there’s a lot of work left. “There have been some legislative changes that have been important, but not very many,” says Cohen, pointing to policy changes on cohabitation requirements when sponsoring a spouse and the age of dependent children.
In November, the federal government announced it was increasing immigration targets for the next three years, from 310,000 in 2018 to 340,000 in 2020. This is up from 2017’s goal of 300,000. However, these numbers are still far short of the goal of 450,000 established in 2016 by the Liberals’ own economic-advisory council.
Cohen says if people want to see increased immigration, they’re going to have to demand it from politicians. He says when voters get angry enough, politicians will change their attitudes.
Asked about policy changes the province would like to see the federal government make, Metlege Diab declined comment. “All I can say is that we’re pleased now the federal government is increasing the immigration levels for the coming year,” she says. “They are taking a new approach. It’s a three-year plan, which is a good thing because it allows us some flexibility and some time to sort of develop a plan and it’s not a let’s wait every year to see what we’re going to do. We will continue to keep working with the federal government to keep growing our Nova Scotia population. That is our number-one aim.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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