New Canadians discover Toronto through welcoming theatre program

Sponsored feature: presented by Soulpepper Theatre Company

Many Canadians, including Justin Trudeau and the Liberal party, have been distinguishing between our approach to welcoming new Canadians with what’s taking shape in the United States and elsewhere in the world. But once newcomers have made the difficult transition of leaving one country for another and their most basic needs are met, how can those arriving in Toronto get a deeper understanding of their new cultural landscape?

For Isabella Yan, a 2016 participant in the Soulpepper-CultureLink New Canadians Welcome Program, the answer is simple: theatre. “This program has made our new Canadian life enlightening, enriching and much fun. It is a great life experience,” says Yan, who emigrated from China.

Founded in 2015 and supported in part by the annual Soulpepper at Play fundraising event, the program invites newcomers in Toronto to be part of the creative community at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto’s Distillery District. The experience helps create crucial first connections with other newcomer families and the arts community through special welcome events and a full year of free tickets to all Soulpepper performances. Each participant is also paired with a Soulpepper artist or staff member for program support.

After it launched two years ago with 23 families, the New Canadians Welcome Program has grown to accommodate an additional 26 families in 2016 and recently reached a total of 200 participants. In 2016, participants came from 18 different countries: Armenia, Austria, Brazil, China, Croatia, Cuba, England, India, Iran, Israel, Italy, Mexico, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, Somalia, Syria and Ukraine.

Soulpepper-CultureLink_photo cred Terry Baker_2.JPG

Photo credit: Terry Baker

History of building roots

There are numerous Torontonians, families and organizations across the city that work tirelessly to ease the challenges of transitioning to daily life in Canada’s largest city. CultureLink was a natural partner for Soulpepper, as the organization has over 25 years of experience in developing and delivering settlement services to meet the needs of diverse communities.

“We partnered with CultureLink for this program because they are the experts at providing innovative services to newcomers, and they wholeheartedly shared our enthusiasm for welcoming new Canadians in Toronto to our home,” says Soulpepper’s artistic director Albert Schultz.

And while free community outreach and youth programming have been a part of Soulpepper’s mandate since its inception in 1998, its work with CultureLink first started in 2013 with Soulpepper’s Ada Slaight Youth Link Program, an after-school theatre-based program for newcomer youth. The New Canadians Welcome Program is the theatre company’s first venture outside of youth-specific programming.

Growing the local arts scene

Lucy Aposhian, a current participant who emigrated from Syria, explains that the program has been helpful in making her feel at home in Toronto. “We are grateful for how welcoming the program has been,” she says. “We are really lucky to be here, part of this very diverse city.”

The benefits aren’t just for the newcomers participating in the program – it also expands the local arts communities and allows Soulpepper company members to engage in cultural activities beyond its own building. “Every family I’ve met has shared with me the importance of finding something familiar and secure in their new country,” says Soulpepper resident artist and new Canadians volunteer Derek Boyes. “And now they can add the Soulpepper family to their comfort list and know that they are welcome here.”

Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, another resident artist and program volunteer, echoes the sentiment. “I’ve learned so much about the world and about art through conversations with the families I have met,” she says. “I think for the participants, the program offers a way to experience both the arts but also create friendships and connections in their new home and at their own pace.”

The Soulpepper-CultureLink New Canadians Welcome Program will be accepting new participants to the program in Spring and Fall 2017. For more information about the program and how to register, contact Sam Semczyszyn at or 416.203.6264 x118.

Visit NOW Digital Residency: Soulpepper Spotlight to experience more of the company’s 20th anniversary season!

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