Newcomers: Baljit Sethi - Role Model

Consuelo Solar

When Baljit Sethi arrived in Canada in 1972 from India, she was in her late thirties and had left an artistic career behind. She looked for work as a performing artist and tried to establish herself as a painter, but soon enough she realized that even though art was her first love, a job in that field wouldn’t give her enough economic stability, at least not right away. Instead of feeling defeated by the circumstances, she saw an opportunity to go back to her other passion: counselling. With a bachelor in Education, and enough experience as counsellor at a community college in Punjab, she went back to school to obtain Canadian credentials in Family Counselling, and eventually found a job with the Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia. She fell back in love.

35 years have passed since Sethi undertook the challenge of founding the Immigrant Services Society of Prince George, now known as the Immigrant and Multicultural Services Society (IMSS), and she has helped numerous immigrant families along the way. Sethi has dedicated her life to help newcomers transition to their new lives in Canada, and for this reason she received the 2011 Paul Yuzyk Award for Multiculturalism, a lifetime achievement accolade that pays tribute to those who encourage the interaction of immigrants with the host community and are instrumental in promoting multiculturalism. Not only is this a national honour, but the award winner receives the right to select an organization that receives a $20,000 grant from the Government of Canada.

○What drew you to work with new immigrants, and ultimately to found the Immigrant Services Society of Prince George?

“When I came to Prince George in the 70’s, there was a very unique situation here, with quite a bit of racism against Indo-Canadians, so the few Indo-Canadian families that lived in Prince George needed much assistance. I started helping them at first, and eventually I had the chance to work with many different communities, and learn from different cultures. With time I realized that people was very interested in listening to me about the Indian culture, and at the same time I was learning about other cultures”.

○Was your own experience as an immigrant helpful for your job as a settlement counsellor?

“Yes, because I could relate with the newcomers, so I was very comfortable speaking with them. Many immigrants from different parts of the world call me “mom” until today. And I feel that I was able to help. I was an artist in India and I had to go in a different direction here, but that made me a good role model for them, because I could encourage them to struggle and go after their goals. And even though I couldn’t make a living as an artist, I was able to use my artwork later on for many projects to help new immigrants.”

○Would you say that multicultural programs are as necessary today as they were 35 years ago when you first started working as a settlement counsellor?

“In those days people had no idea what they could do or where they could go to ask for help, they had to figure it out on their own, because there weren’t that many services available. Today it is much easier for people to enroll in settlement programs and ask for assistance. Those types of programs help them see that we all belong together. The people I help constantly tell me that I am a good role model, because it is encouraging for new immigrants to see that if we are dedicated and work hard, we will be able to have our place in the community.”

○Many of the multicultural and anti-racism projects designed by you many years ago are still being delivered to this day. After all this time, why is it still necessary to promote multiculturalism and racial harmony?

“Right from the beginning I realized that most of the challenges were in schools, because kids can be very blunt, and they will say whatever they feel, so many cases of bullying are caused by racism. So what we do is to enroll people from different cultures, especially among youth, and then we go to talk to teachers and parents, and make a presentation or symposium in racial harmony with the objective of bringing communities together. Our message is that we are all unique, and therefore we have to respect each other’s uniqueness, but that can only be appreciated if we have the opportunity to learn about the different cultures.”

○You are also an activist and an advocate for immigrant women. Do you think women face different integration challenges?

“Many times immigrant women are forced to stay at home taking care of their families, because there is a general idea that this is where they belong. When I first started working with women my focus was on those who were victims of domestic violence, but gradually I realized that there are other challenges too, as women with other problems would come to me asking for help. Now many women come with their husbands, and they both ask for my assistance.”

○You are also a published author, what inspired you to start writing?

“I’ve always been very interested in documenting stories of immigrants. People who come to my office have many stories about their settlement in Canada. For my book ‘Journey to New Horizons’, a grant allowed me to document stories of senior immigrants who came as young people to Canada. I wrote it because nobody writes about all these people who have settled in Prince George, and done so much for this community. It is a Cultural History book.”

○What is your next project?

“I still feel that I haven’t written a book about immigrant women. So I will take it upon myself to document and write the stories of immigrant women, especially those who encounter domestic conflicts and challenges related to their integration process.”