Finding a Foothold

A program helps Indigenous families settle into a new life in Edmonton

It wasn’t the homecoming Sandra Cardinal* had hoped for. After packing up her Edmonton home, she and her children moved back to her hometown, hoping to reconnect with family. But after struggling to find work, and dealing with a new boyfriend’s abuse, Cardinal knew she couldn’t stay.

She stuffed as many clothes and household goods as she could fit in her car and headed back to Edmonton with her children. “I’m doing better now and putting my life back together,” she says, noting that Bent Arrow’s New in Town program is making the process much easier. Since being accepted into the program, Cardinal’s been able to find a more affordable apartment, furniture for her new home, counselling, and emergency funding to help with the unexpected costs related to fleeing abuse.

Created in 2011, New in Town helps Indigenous people from across Canada get their footing in Edmonton, assisting with everything from housing and employment, to cultural opportunities and food. A team of six support workers helps clients navigate services and resources offered by government, agencies and non-profits. “We’ll help with basically whatever they request when they come in,” says Robbie Kaboni, the program’s supervisor. “We rate their priorities and then slowly go down the list.”

She explains that the program’s clients come from a wide range of communities — from reserves and small towns, to large urban centres — from across Alberta and beyond. Often, clients are not only leaving their loved ones behind, but also their ties to culture, which adds to the stress of a big-city transition. In addition to practical supports, Bent Arrow connects these newcomers to Indigenous cultural opportunities in Edmonton.

But New in Town doesn’t limit its clients to Indigenous people. Over the years, the program has opened its doors to refugee and immigrant newcomers struggling to overcome culture shock and find their way in the city.

Bent Arrow’s executive director, Cheryl Whiskeyjack, explains that the program was created to better serve the large number of people coming to the organization seeking help transitioning to Edmonton.

“Edmonton is the gateway to the oil patch and a gathering place for people who come here for opportunities,” says Whiskeyjack. “The New in Town program welcomes them and helps them make the transition in a good way.”

When the organization was in urgent need of funding for the program a couple of years ago, Whiskeyjack was relieved when Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF) came through with a commitment of $50,000 per year for three years. “It was just-in-time funding for us to keep the program going without making cuts or trimming the service down,” she says.

For the 500 clients currently enrolled, New in Town not only minimizes the stress of moving to the city, it increases their chances of long-term happiness and success. Indigenous people come to Edmonton for opportunity, “but what they are leaving behind is a sense of community and belonging,” says Whiskeyjack. Support from other Indigenous people can make all the difference.

Cardinal says her worker is as much an advocate as a friend; the other week, she even showed up with the sage she needed to smudge.With children to raise, legal matters to attend to, and abuse to heal from, rebuilding her life is exhausting work; having someone walking the journey with her has made all the difference. “It’s not so overwhelming,” she says.