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Ukranians headed to Bow Valley to settle, despite cost of living and housing crisis

When Russia invaded Ukraine back in February, Kate Ostashevskaya felt powerless, but knew that doing something instead of doom-scrolling would help. 

So, she reached out to a Facebook friend, a virtual stranger in Ukraine who had posted about a recent bombing hitting too close to home, and asked if she’d like to flee to Canmore, Alta. 

At first, the woman declined, but eventually decided to flee Ukraine and head to Canada.

So, Ostashevskaya helped her get set up, they worked out paperwork together, and quickly she was employed and out on her own.

“I was very anxious. I didn’t know how it will end and how it will go,” Ostashevskaya said. 

Banff and Canmore have always been immigration hotbeds, Settlement Services Supervisor Jeanie Godfrey said. Often they see immigrants or new Canadians after they have landed in Canada and started in a community like Calgary. 

Settlement Services in the Bow Valley has helped 78 people with its programming in the region so far. And the Job Resource Centre in Canmore and Banff is seeing about a dozen people interested in the opportunities in both mountain towns every month. 

“We see that that number has been growing very steadily, very quickly over the last few months or so,” Godfrey said. 

For single people, even those who don’t speak a lot of English, this region in southern Alberta can be a great fit. 

At the Banff Job Resource Centre,  Michel Dufresne is proud of the Rolodex they have at their fingertips. It allows them to know which employers need workers, and what level of English is required for the role. 

“It’s often a day visit from Calgary and then they end up coming up to the Job Resource Centre and getting themselves having a good look at the job board, talking to our staff,” he said. “We can make calls and then have people interviewed like an hour later kind of thing, or have even an employer coming to meet with a group of Ukrainians. “

There are jobs waiting, but housing is another story

Many employers need workers, and some jobs in the area come with staff accommodations. But it does come with challenges. Both Canmore and Banff are currently in a housing crisis, Godfrey said. 

“Certainly the cost of living can be higher than other parts of Alberta,” Godfrey said. “We want anyone that’s coming to the valley to be successful. We want them to stay here, so we want to know that we have the resources for them to achieve that. Without housing, we know that that is going to be a challenge.”

She wants to ensure before taking the trek to Banff or Canmore, Ukrainians — and anyone settling in the area for that matter — look to secure housing first. 

For Ostashevskaya, her grassroots efforts to help didn’t stop at one Ukrainian. 

Once her first guest settled in housing of her own, she started the process over again — opening up her home to another person fleeing and looking to settle in the Bow Valley. 

Tineke Van Der Merwe, left, and Kate Ostashevskaya, right, have teamed up on a grassroots approach to helping Ukraininas feel welcome in Canmore. (Helen Pike/CBC)

And from there, things snowballed. 

Ostashevskaya connected with Tineke Van Der Merwe.‎ Together, one of their first missions was securing four pairs of winter boots and asking for help from the Canmore community on Facebook. 

Their small passionate team has become the support system they believe Ukrainians need outside of the formalized services available to them in the valley. 

“‘I’m really just trying to open doors to find opportunities and pathways for new Ukrainian members to become part of our community in Canmore,” Van Der Merwe said. 

Everyday tasks are hard, finding community difficult

One way she’s been able to help is to secure a guitar for one of the Ukrainian newcomers who wanted to learn, it’s those creative outlets and cultural opportunities Van Der Merwe wants to help establish. 

There are everyday tasks these newcomers need an extra hand with. Things as simple as calling a taxi, getting access to the food bank, or booking a doctor’s appointment are draining and difficult to navigate. 

She was once a newcomer herself, from Russia, Ostashevskaya knows what it’s like to navigate all of these foreign systems. 

“I realized that I can be helpful in many ways,” she said. 

One of those ways is simply by speaking the language and communicating with Ukrainians. And, as a Canmore local she is also connected to others who can lend a helping hand. 

Some services are hard to offer in newcomer’s first language

Of course, Settlement Services offers a lot of help. Their supports include orientation services, language classes, and connection programming. What they don’t offer, Godfrey said, are some of the more specialized services newcomers can find in bigger centers, like Calgary.

For example, settlement services do offer counseling and in-person services of that nature. But, having those sessions in a person’s language isn’t something they are equipped for in the Bow Valley. 

“Ukrainians fleeing war included in that group, they’ve experienced trauma,” Godfrey said. “To get a counselor in their first language … they may have to travel for that or have that service online. So to be able to achieve both those criteria face to face and in one’s language is a struggle.”

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