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When Cristian Montalvo applied for his first part-time job in Canada, he faced this question: “Do you have a reliable source of transportation to and from work?”
As a recent immigrant to Winnipeg, who relies solely on public transit to commute, he knew the answer was “no.”
Reliable transportation is a common barrier to newcomers securing work.
“There’s this idea that everything in Canada works perfectly, and then when you come here, it’s shocking how untrue that is,” said Montalvo.
Montalvo moved to Winnipeg in August 2021 to pursue the Business Administration program at Red River College Polytechnic. His hometown, Quito, Ecuador, is known as the “city of eternal spring” because its proximity to the equator keeps the climate warm year-round.
Before life in Winnipeg, Montalvo dreamed of experiencing his first snowfall. His only concept of winter was movie scenes with fake snow and unrealistic winter outfits.
“It’s impressive how cold it is, and you cannot explain it to anybody,” said Montalvo.
He’s not the only newcomer with a false perception of winter.
Winnipeg is among the five coldest cities in the world, with temperatures dropping below -40 C for several days most winters.
Despite the cold, thousands of immigrants and refugees seek a new life in Manitoba every year. 21,340 new immigrants came to Manitoba between July 1, 2021 and June 30, 2022. Affordable living costs make the province a desirable home base. In 2018, the average cost of housing was $189,000 less than the Canadian median. Employment and educational opportunities, free public health care, and a diverse population add to Manitoba’s appeal.
Newcomers might notice the “Friendly Manitoba” license plates when they arrive in the province — a reminder of how friendly their new home is supposed to be. But many of these immigrants and refugees won’t be able to drive in the foreseeable future — not with language, cost, and logistical barriers standing in their way. Manitoba’s weather is another barrier to transportation — like the 148 centimetres of snow that fell in 2022, wreaking havoc on road conditions and bus routes.
Winnipeg is home to many not-for-profit organizations that help immigrants and refugees by providing them with the tools they need to succeed while adjusting to a new city and climate. Unfortunately, few of these organizations offer transportation-specific services.
On April 25, 2022, the Government of Manitoba announced a $5.1 million investment in 15 settlement service organizations to “help support newcomers as they settle into the community, enhance their ability to participate in the labour market and accelerate their overall integration and settlement in Manitoba.”
The funding does not explicitly address newcomers’ transportation or commuting needs, leaving the responsibility to local non-profits or newcomers. The result is Manitoba newcomers struggling to navigate a new city and establish careers without transportation they can rely on. Many newcomers navigate this issue alone or rely on each other for support.
Montalvo noticed the province’s “friendly” slogan on licence plates during his daily bus rides. He said change is necessary for the label to be true and for the city’s transit system to be safe and accessible for all citizens.
Language barriers exist in Winnipeg’s transit system. Although over 200 languages are spoken in Manitoba, Winnipeg Transit bus routes are only offered in English or French, isolating the large population of newcomers still learning English.
Winnipeg Transit is currently facing a shortage of bus operators, decreasing route options for riders. More than 90 assaults on operators in each 2020, 2021, and 2022 contribute to the lack of bus operators.
Romeo Ignacio, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505 in Winnipeg, said transit assaults added to the nearly 100 drivers currently on leave.
“Some of them are due to accidents and assaults. Some of them are not yet coming back to work,” said Ignacio.
Despite Winnipeg’s abundance of winter activities, the cold weather and lack of bus routes sway newcomers from participating.
“In winter, especially if you are in newcomer and it is your first winter, you want to go out and explore your new life,” said Montalvo.
Montalvo says some of the bus routes he’s taken aren’t practical. His favourite Ecuadorian restaurant is in the St. Vital neighbourhood, but living in West Elmwood, he rarely goes.
“For me to go there, I have to take three or four buses, and it’s crazy,” said Montalvo.
The lack of bus routes prevented him from visiting different parts of the city and attending events he’d see promoted online. This feeling of isolation took a toll on his mental health.
“You get pretty lonely,” said Montalvo.
The student felt isolated during his first winter, struggling to balance the reward of exploring the city on a budget and spending hours on the bus. Montalvo said he is thankful to have made fellow newcomer friends through school — many of whom felt the same.
Montalvo misses the readily available bus options in his home country, where he only had to wait a few minutes for another bus if he missed the first.
“Here, if you miss the bus, you’re stuck for half an hour. So, if I missed my bus to be able to go to school, [I] will miss school,” said Montalvo.
He says it’s especially hard in winter when standing or walking outside for extended periods may not be possible. Montalvo is one of many Winnipeg international students whose attendance relies on consistent transit.
With an annual average of 117.9 centimetres of snow, Winnipeg Transit routes experience frequent delays and cancellations due to snow plowing and cautious driving speeds. Transit route changes keep citizens from getting where they need to go and often leave them waiting at bus stops or walking in the cold.
Montalvo tries to avoid bus shelters in the downtown area, where he attends school. He says there is often broken glass, garbage, or people living inside. He’d rather brave the cold wind than risk invading someone’s personal space.
Winnipeg’s blistering winters and lack of resources leave many people without homes, forcing them to seek refuge in bus shelters. Winnipeg’s houseless population grew during the COVID-19 pandemic, along with methamphetamine use in the city, which increases user paranoia, hallucinations, and aggression. Little action from the government to prevent acts of violence due to meth leaves people like Montalvo feeling unsafe while commuting.
Of the close to 885 bus shelters in Winnipeg, 371 needed damages repaired in 2022, leaving transit users and anyone using them without protection from wind or snow.
“It’s just not worth it to me,” said Montalvo. “They fix the glass [shelter walls], and then a week later, it’s broken again.”
Providing resources so that people residing in bus shelters have a warm, safe place to live is one of the steps the city must take to make transit a more welcoming experience.
Montalvo said that last winter, a man who appeared to be living in a bus shelter hit him in the face for no reason other than coming too close. Acts of violence like this aren’t new to Winnipeg Transit.
On January 20, 2023, Winnipeg Police tweeted a report announcing a physical and verbal assault on a man and his 10-year-old son on public transit. Many users quickly replied, expressing their concern for transit safety and calling Winnipeg a “car city” with prevalent “car culture.”
Those able to participate in Winnipeg’s “car culture” need access to a valid driver’s licence and the resources necessary to keep a vehicle on the road.
Obtaining a valid Manitoba driver’s licence as a new Canadian can be a lengthy and discouraging process. Upon arrival in Manitoba, newcomers have three months to drive with their valid, out-of-country driver’s licence. Depending on their circumstances and which country they moved from, the driver will likely need to complete Manitoba’s knowledge and road tests.
Lete Izuz, a life skills support worker with the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba (IRCOM), sees firsthand how vital winter transportation and safety are for people new to the province and its extreme weather. Izuz says the settlement organization she now works for is to thank for integrating her into life in Manitoba through education and volunteer opportunities.
Thirteen years ago, Izuz moved to Winnipeg from Sudan, a country with average temperatures between 26 and 32 degrees Celsius. The severity of winter weather discouraged her as she tried to plant new roots in Winnipeg. Even walking outside, something she once loved, became something she dreaded.
“It is a lot of barriers. There will be language barriers and financial ones. If you cannot drive to get to work, how can you afford to buy the [bus] pass?” said Izuz.
She said transportation is a foundation that newcomers rely on.
In 2014, IRCOM introduced a driving program in partnership with Manitoba Public Insurance (MPI) to teach new Manitobans about driving in winter conditions — this is how Izuz prepared for her driver’s tests. She is thankful the program existed to help during the process of getting her license and said being among other newcomers lessened her fear of judgment.
Now, Izuz thinks driving — even in winter — is fun. It allows her and her four children to commute without waiting in the cold.
“I remember one time I put my kids outside to wait for a bus in the frost, and they just came back [home],” said Izuz.
She said a lack of funding ended the newcomer driving program just two years later.
Today, people wanting to improve their driving and practice on Winnipeg roads pay for private lessons, which cost up to $60 per hour.
“Even if you know how to drive in the country that you come from, it’s so different when you come here to Winnipeg,” said Izuz.
Many families she works with have never experienced snow, ice, slush, or cold weather.
Carolina Montaña and her husband arrived in Winnipeg from Bogotá, Colombia, in December 2021. The climate in Bogotá is mild year-round — a short winter and temperature that typically varies from 7 C to 19 C.
Montaña said that learning to drive in winter and snow shocked her partner, who considered himself a perfect driver back home in Colombia. Beyond road conditions, Manitoba’s rules and driving culture differ from those in many other countries. New drivers must learn these rules and be financially secure to drive in Manitoba.
In 2015, the Canadian Automobile Association declared that owning and operating a motor vehicle in Canada costs between $8,500 to $13,000 a year. With an inflation rate of 6.8 per cent in 2022, gas prices and general vehicle costs are rising. Winter tires, emergency kits, shovels, and booster cables are added costs to safe winter driving in Manitoba.
To avoid the cost of driving lessons, the Montañas’ family friend, who also immigrated to Manitoba, offered to help them learn. They looked for vacant parking lots to practice. Montaña said even coordinating times to practice posed a difficulty and discouraged them.
“As a newcomer, we’re all working or studying,” said Montaña.
Izuz discussed the loss of confidence she sees in the people she works with as they try to navigate a new city and learn how to use and access appropriate transportation. Many newcomers face a language barrier when obtaining a Manitoba driver’s license. MPI only offers training modules and written and road tests in English or French.
“I know a lot of people get depressed after like five to six times when they don’t pass,” said Izuz. “They give up.”
She wants to see a portion of the $5.1 million investment in 15 settlement service organizations go to more reliable transportation options in Winnipeg and improved resources for newcomers before they arrive.
Reading about 40 below zero temperatures and blowing snow does little to prepare one for the extremity of those conditions and the potential consequences. The first step to surviving a Winnipeg winter is knowing what’s ahead and having the necessary resources.
The importance of warm winter clothing and having a place to stay are easily located on the Government of Manitoba’s web pages for new Manitobans. Despite text-heavy pages of information, the website lacks sufficient information on transportation in Manitoba — let alone winter-specific transportation.
The Montañas’ immigration story began with research. The government website proved helpful for links to other websites and essential information on settlement. But the couple quickly turned to information provided by other newcomers instead.
“If you have to deal with the bills and you’re going to take the bus, they’re not going to give you back the change,” said Montaña. “That’s something someone had to tell me.”
Even with fluent English, reading pages of information wasn’t helpful to her or her newcomer friends.
“It is a lot of information and text. So, trying to understand that may be better if you have another way to share that information with people, like maybe videos or radio instead,” said Montaña about the current information offered to new Manitobans.
Various apps helped her adjust to her new life, but all of them were referred to her by immigrants she met after arriving. Winnipeg Bus Live was especially useful in the winter, letting citizens know if their bus is running on time, late, or cancelled.
“You don’t know about the apps you can use. So, you can maybe rent a car for an hour, and you can easily go to places and buy everything, put it in the car and go back. But you don’t know that,” said Montaña.
During her first winter months, she got tired of lugging groceries onto the bus and walking in unbearable temperatures. Now, she prefers ordering groceries online or renting a vehicle to tackle her errands without the added stress.
Similarly, Montalvo says there were many things he wished he knew before winter, like buying winter boots that aren’t only warm but have a powerful grip. He quickly learned about black ice. It was snowing on his way home from school when he watched a passerby slip on ice at the bus stop. The man groaned, and blood spewed from his mouth. In shock, Montalvo called an ambulance.
“You start to do a lot of changes that you should have done in the beginning,” said Montalvo.
Gail Henderson Brown, a coordinator of injury prevention with the Canadian Red Cross, runs the SmartStart program for new Canadians, teaching them safety tactics specific to their new climate.
SmartStart presentations feature information on how to stay warm, explaining the process of heat loss. “If you’re wearing warm pants and a ski jacket but no hat, you could still experience hypothermia or frostbite because you’re losing heat through your head,” said Henderson Brown.
She said a familiar story of the newcomers in SmartStart is busing somewhere and relying on the route directions on their phones. When their phone freezes up, they are lost and cold in an unfamiliar place.
“We find that it helps when newcomers can hear another newcomer story,” said Henderson Brown. She often notices a growth in confidence among newcomers who share advice and stories with each other through the program.
Many newcomers fear winter after hearing stories and comments about the cold.
“All they hear about is, ‘oh my god, you’re coming in the wintertime? Winter is very scary,” said Henderson Brown.
Anxiety over the unknown in a new province isn’t surprising, especially since acclimatizing to Winnipeg’s transit options and climate isn’t always smooth.
“I recently met a girl, a Colombian, who actually decided to go back to Colombia because she couldn’t handle Canada. And the first thing she told me is, ‘I was alone at the airport, and I couldn’t find a way just to go [to my new] home,’” said Montaña.
Montaña explained that she and other Colombian women feel uncomfortable taking taxis alone.
“I always think [taxi drivers are] going to do something wrong. It is scary, right?” said Montaña.
Growing closer to the end of another long winter in “Winterpeg,” Montalvo looks forward to getting a valid Manitoba driver’s license after graduating later this year. He hopes that driving will relieve the stress of daily bus rides.
Izuz remains grateful for her vehicle and ability to drive. As a life skills support worker, she drives daily to visit newcomers and give them advice and tools to help them settle.
Carolina Montaña plans to try for her own license soon after the help of a fellow newcomer allowed her husband to pass his road test on the first try. She also plans on driving to her workplace to avoid the transit system — especially bus trips to and from downtown.
As a province growing increasingly dependent on new Canadians contributing to its workforce, Manitoba is not doing enough to support newcomers’ transportation needs.
The province needs to address the barriers to newcomers obtaining a valid Manitoba driver’s licence. Manitoba’s online resources for newcomers are text-heavy and impractical for anyone still learning English. Montaña says the province needs to invest in developing content that includes videos, podcasts, and infographics.
Winnipeg’s transit system needs improved safety measures and increased bus routes to help newcomers — and all Winnipeggers — get where they need to be with less hassle. Montalvo says this includes addressing the homeless crisis and getting people out of bus shelters and into safe housing.
Not-for-profit settlement organizations are overwhelmed and overworked, trying to help as many people as possible with their limited funding. Izuz wants to see not-for-profit funding allocated to transportation so they can bring back programs to help newcomers learn to drive.
After nearly a year since the government announced its $5.1 million investment, there are no new or improved resources to alleviate the winter transportation issues affecting newcomers’ ability to participate in the workforce and integrate into Manitoba living.
Sustaining the province’s friendly reputation requires more than smiles between strangers and boosting each other’s frozen car batteries. It’s time to address how friendly Manitoba is and who it is friendly towards.