Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Learning from experience

Manitoba's fairness commissioner knows first-hand what it's like to be a new immigrant

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As a university student, Ximena Munoz pushed for democracy in Chile.

Now she works to help newcomers to Manitoba fit in.

"My goal is to help people integrate, to get what they need to be successful," said Munoz, Manitoba's first fairness commissioner.

She came to Canada in 1978 from Chile, where she was involved in the student movement. She supported the democratically elected socialist president, Salvador Allende, who was overthrown in 1973 by military dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

"I supported people in a lot of trouble," she said.

Munoz helped them get away, doing everything from finding clothes for people on the run to helping them reach safety.

"A lot of people sought refuge in embassies," she said.

Life was very difficult following the coup d'état, she said. "You couldn't walk in groups, you didn't know if your phone was tapped... you had to be more guarded, more careful, more skeptical."

At the tender age of 23, she learned not to trust.

Her parents and eight younger siblings came to Winnipeg in 1976 as government-assisted refugees with just $100. Her father, an accountant in Chile, opposed Pinochet, pushed for agrarian reforms and worked with the campesinos -- peasant farmers.

"The military got rid of a lot of people," said Munoz.

Her dad was sent into internal exile in Chile and fled with his family to Winnipeg. She stayed behind for two years before joining her parents and younger siblings in Winnipeg.

Her mother volunteered at her youngest child's school and ended up working as a teacher's aide. Her father worked in credit unions. They started off in a house on Ross Avenue near Salter Street.

When Munoz arrived, she spent her first year learning English.

"I was very fortunate I had people here, my family, who supported me."

She'd completed four years of university in Chile in agronomics and focused on farm economics, including co-ops. Here, she went back to university and earned an advanced arts degree in psychology.

Her first job in Canada was as a student, writing a guide for newcomers. She's been providing information to immigrants and working on settlement issues ever since.

Munoz has worked with most of Manitoba's newcomer communities.

She recalled the time the Eritrean community wanted to set up a program for its "senior" women. She was shocked when she met those elders.

"These were women 32 to 35 years old."

They've had hard lives; many refugees had short life expectancies before they came to Manitoba. They've survived some of the worst things imaginable. It bothers Munoz when she hears them dismissed for not having life skills.

"These people are the tough ones," she said. "They deserve our help. You need to show them how things work (in Canada.)"

As fairness commissioner, Munoz wants people with foreign training and experience to be able to put that to work here. She's working with licensing and regulatory bodies to ensure people educated overseas have a fair shot at entering their profession here. That includes setting up professional practice seminars for people to learn the culture and Canadian lingo of their profession.

"Everybody needs to learn English to get a job."

The idioms and the way people communicate -- that part of language native speakers take for granted -- are vital.

What "tossing your cookies" means isn't even close to its literal translation, for instance. Ways of doing things here can trip people up, too.

"You don't know what you don't know," said Munoz.

"People need that kind of information."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 29, 2012 J2

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