by Will Johnson

Being a newcomer to Canada can be overwhelming, and finding time for physical activity, cultural activities, or simply exploring new environments outdoors, can be challenging. Because of the barriers many families face when orienting themselves to a new country, they may struggle to access physical activity and cultural opportunities. Canoo, a new app, aims to help newcomers navigate their first year in their new homes.

For Daniel Bernhard, CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, the app is a way to return the favour after Canada welcomed his family into its arms decades ago. He was born here, but his parents emigrated from Chile in the 1970s. They didn’t speak English when they arrived. As a child, he struggled to figure out where he belonged.

“I grew up in a house where the parents had funny accents, where my relatives spoke a different language at family gatherings, and there was an obvious need to translate. I always had to manage both of those identities,” Bernhard told Sport for Life. 

“But Canada was able to recognize that my parents were able to work hard and succeed, and people were open to the idea that those who speak other languages had something to contribute, and that’s what stuck out for me. My father ended up working in business and industry, my mother became a professor, and both made serious contributions to society because it was set up for that.”

Canoo, presented most recently at the 2022 Sport for Life Summit in Mississauga, was created to make newcomers’ transitions easier so that they too can offer their unique contributions to society. Since physical activity, and cultural and quality outdoor experiences enhance long-term health and well-being, inclusion and accessibility must be made a priority. 

Bernhard feels that immigration is a multi-faceted issue. When his team looks at accessibility to physical activities, parks and recreation spaces, museums, science centres, zoos, concerts, etcetera, Canadians might not be doing as well as they think when fully including newcomers in a meaningful way. Their data shows that 30 percent of those polled under 35 years of age plan to leave the country within two years.

“This is a story with two sides. On one side, there is a strong political consensus across the spectrum that immigration is positive and we should keep it up. Canada stands out in the world for its heart, and we’re consistently open to newcomers coming in and working on the best way to welcome them,” he said.

“On the other hand, data is showing that experiences are starting to diverge. We’re seeing underemployment, skills not being fairly recognized, and people wondering if it’s a good idea to move here when there’s isolation—and where are people supposed to live? Everything is expensive and you can’t just go have a pick-up game—you have to pay a fee.”

That’s where Canoo comes in. The app provides newcomers with a year of access to physical activity, and outdoor and cultural opportunities that will get them plugged into the community and introduced to new teams and groups. Canoo even gives out free tickets to events in big stadiums, letting newcomers experience professional sport in Canada. 

“You’re sitting there watching a game and you end up sitting next to somebody you connect with, and that might be the moment you realize that there are people in Canada who like the things you like. Sport is a shared language, a level playing field. You play well and others play well and you have that in common, plus being healthy is a huge benefit.”

Newcomers can download the app, and immediately check out listings for nearby events. There are 1,400 free venues and hundreds of events across the country. 

  Bernhard said responses to the app from newcomers have been positive so far.

“Belonging is not something you hear, it’s something you experience. We’re not just telling newcomers we want them here, we’ve proven it. We’re at the front of the line.”

Canoo has been used by 450,000 people since 2010.

“This is an experiment in how to make the feeling of home, at scale. We can’t force that, but we can create environments where it’s likely to occur”

Kabir Hosein, Sport for Life’s Director of Operations and Strategic Initiatives, was wowed by the app during the Summit this year and praised the company for its innovative work.

“Inclusion of newcomers is a core principle within our Sport for Life community, and the work that the ICC is doing via the Canoo app to ensure newcomers have access to these quality opportunities. They will surely have a multi-generational impact that will last far into the future. As a newcomer from Trinidad and Tobago myself, it warms my heart to see this work being done.”

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