N.S. bucking tide of anti-immigration sentiment, ex-ISANS director says


When you’ve devoted much of your life to helping people from across the world settle in their new home, these are scary times. 

“Of course I’m worried, everybody should be worried,” Gerry Mills said in a recent interview. 

After all, almost 300,000 Canadians voted for the anti-immigration People’s Party of Canada in last month’s federal election. In the United States there's the wall-builder Donald Trump and last week the United Kingdom gave Conservative dog-whistler Boris Johnson a fat majority. 

But Mills, the former executive director of the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia, takes solace in the fact that Nova Scotia’s immigration numbers have rarely been more robust.

Our population grew by 5,373 people between July 1 and Oct. 1, including 2,471 immigrants. That’s the highest quarterly immigration jump since the Second World War, said a news release from the province issued Thursday. 

In 2018, 5,970 new permanent residents came to Nova Scotia.  

Mills pointed to the influx of Syrian refugees two years ago as a tipping point for many Nova Scotians. “You start realizing that people are just the same, . . . your neighbours are now immigrants, people’s co-workers are now immigrants,” said Mills, who came to Nova Scotia as a newcomer herself from England in 1986. 

“Not that they were negative toward immigration but (they realized) immigrants, refugees, they want exactly the same as any other Canadian. They want safety, security, they want their kids to be happy, they want work and that’s it.”

Mills looks back on the Syrian refugee crisis of 2017 as a highlight of her career, which will be recognized Jan. 27 with an honorary degree from Saint Mary’s University. 

“We knew we had to prepare so we spent countless hours preparing -- the numbers, how many, when were they coming, where we would house them,” she recounted. “And then of course it never works like that! One of ISANS’ greatest strengths is its flexibility, whatever comes, it’s fine. So people arriving in the middle of the night; instead of two people, there’s 40 people, people in wheelchairs, paraplegics, the apartments are not ready.”

Mills said the hard work and dedication of ISANS’ staff, as well as the goodwill of many Nova Scotians, made it possible to welcome over 1,500 Syrians to our province. 

She said she was surprised and humbled by the news of the honorary degree but she emphasized such honours extend to her ISANS colleagues as much as her individual efforts.

Mills started working with other immigrants soon after arriving in Nova Scotia with her husband who was in the fishing industry. They later divorced and she raised her two children by herself while teaching English as a second language (she has a degree in German and English from Hull University in England).

That experience evolved into a role as executive director of the Halifax Immigrant Learning Centre, where she helped spearhead its merger with the Metropolitan Immigrant Settlement Association into ISANS. 

She admits her early years in Nova Scotia were not easy. 

“For most immigrants, it’s really hard. The culture, the food is different, you get into trouble because of your sense of humour! It took me probably a couple of years.”

But once she got a job, she began to feel settled in her new home.

“I truly believe it’s true what we all look for in a job is somewhere, some work that we love, work that we find fulfilling with an organization that aligns with your values, and the organization did. It felt right, a great fit for me and so I never looked back.”

She leaves ISANS confident in the organization’s “significant” role in supporting newcomers and working with the provincial government to encourage immigration. 

And looking ahead to her honorary degree, Mills lauded Saint Mary’s support of the immigrant community, particularly former SMU president Colin Dodds, another U.K. emigre. 

“Saint Mary’s is a leader amongst Nova Scotian universities in recognizing the benefits of attracting international students to campus and also for lobbying government to develop pathways for them to stay,” she said.