Thursday, September 23, 2010

African immigrants make mark on Brooks election

By Tony Seskus
Calgary Herald September 22

BROOKS - Brooks is a pioneer city steeped in cowboy history, but shaped more recently by the thousands of new Canadians who have come to build a life for themselves on the prairies.

This fall, two African-Canadian immigrants each hope to take the next step by making a bid to sit on city council, a significant moment for the century-old community two hours southeast of Calgary.

Born in East Africa, Ahmed Kassem arrived in Canada more than 20 years ago. Today, he's an assistant safety manager at Lakeside Packers and co-founder of an organization that strives to build bridges between new arrivals and the community.

"I am running because I want to make a difference in society," says Kassem, who wants to help grow the city and hopes his efforts will inspire others. "I am very confident my message will relate to all."

Michael Nuul Mayen was a refugee of Sudan's bloody civil war, which claimed nearly two million lives. He arrived in Canada with little more than a bag in 1998. Today, he's executive director of a local language centre.

"I came with nothing, but I got something," Mayen says. "It's time to give it back to the country that nurtured and gave me something."

By all accounts, this is the first time African-Canadian immigrants have made a bid for Brooks council.

Their candidacies are an exciting development for Maureen Chelemu, a pastor at Brooks International Gospel Church and an immigrant from Zambia.

Her hope is that as councillors, Kassem and Mayen would help improve understanding, give new Canadians a greater sense of ownership in their community and bring fresh a perspective to council.

"That's exactly what a community is all about, right? To make a better community," she says. "You bring an idea, I bring an idea and then all of us must have that ownership."

If elected, Kassem and Mayen would add another chapter in the community's history, in which immigration has played a huge part.

More than a century ago, the Brooks area was a hunting ground for First Nations people.

In the late 1880s, European immigrants began to move to the area to farm. More homesteaders arrived as the railroad pushed westward.

A more recent wave of newcomers - mostly refugees from Africa - came about 10 or 15 years ago with a number taking hard-to-fill jobs in the beef-processing industry.

Today, roughly 20 per cent of Brooks' 13,500 residents are new immigrants, with a mother tongue other than English or French.

A visitor these days might hear Filipino, Spanish or Arabic. Indeed, the multicultural community is very much like Canada in miniature.

Yet, local politics - like so many other Alberta communities, including Calgary - has not exactly mirrored that same diversity.

That could change when the ballots are counted on Oct. 18.

Lloyd Wong, a sociologist who studies immigration at the University of Calgary, believes news of two African-Canadian immigrant candidates in Brooks is significant.

"When you run for office, that's a sign of what I would call active citizenship," Wong says.

"That's what democracy is about. So, to me, that's a success story that they would want to run and see that they can potentially help make Brooks a better place to live."

Wong also believes it speaks well of the entire Brooks community, "in the sense that there's encouragement for immigrants to be active."

Brooks Mayor Martin Shields applauds anyone willing to stand for public office, whether "you've been in the community all your life, whether you're new or (been here) 20 years from a different culture."

A total of 13 candidates are vying for six councillor spots. Kassem and Mayen are distinct candidates with their own platforms.

Kassem says it would be an honour to be elected and serve the community. And there's little question that he's passionate about Brooks.

He speaks of the importance of attracting and keeping Brooks residents so that the city can grow and prosper economically.

If elected, "I will be representing the whole residents of Brooks and their interests, you can be sure of that," says Kassem, who also hosts a local radio program promoting cultural understanding.

For his part, Mayen says he is running on a platform of "open, transparent and inclusive representation."

He sees his election bid as a way to contribute to his Canadian home.

Mayen was one of Sudan's thousands of "lost boys" who were displaced or orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War.

After arriving in Canada, he pursued his education and graduated from the University of Winnipeg in 2007 with a degree in international development studies.

"I am running as a Canadian citizen," Mayen says. "I felt this is something I should do, something to give back to the community."

The candidates are a hot topic in local coffee shops, according to former mayor Don Weisbeck.

"Municipal politics may be more talked (about) than it has been in years," he adds. "They certainly represent a substantial part of our population and it's good to see ... them running."

On the streets, the news also seems to be largely welcome.

"I don't see why (Brooks) shouldn't move ahead on something like this," says Catherine Burk, who has lived in the area since 1970.

Kashif Mushtaq, a resident of Pakistani origin, believes Kassem's candidacy "will be good for the community and for the city."

But the campaign trail will be full of challenges, especially in a competitive field for a council seat. And some minds will be difficult to change.

"You always have the diehards," adds longtime resident and cabbie Alan Skretting. "The ones who have lived here their whole lives and don't want to see change.

"I've been in the area all my life. I thought it a little early to begin with, but I find good and bad in all cultures, eh? So, I am for it."

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