Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Safety, jobs drew Ecuadorean couple to city Secure in their choice

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In exchange for security and opportunity, a steady flow of Latin American newcomers to Manitoba helps to keep our aging population on life support.

It's estimated there are now 4.2 working-age Canadians for every senior citizen, paying into pension plans and helping to fund health care. By 2031, that ratio will be cut in half, even if immigration levels are maintained at their current pace.

Here in Manitoba, a stream of artists, social workers, tradespeople, teachers, professionals and labourers flows into the province from all over Latin America.

At Winnipeg's Immigrant Centre, Jorge Fernandez sees close to a dozen a month, thanks to the provincial nominee program.

"We're seeing a lot from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Peru," said Fernandez, manager of settlement services, who came to Winnipeg from Ecuador 25 years ago.

"The people coming from Latin American countries are very successful... They have a vocation, employment history and language."

And they stay in Manitoba because they arrived here through the provincial nominee program's family stream, he said. They're not running off to the oil patch or larger Canadian cities, and it's because they have those family connections here, he said. "They're helping each other with family support, accommodation and offering employment."

Most left their Latin American countries because of political and economic instability, Fernandez said.

"Crime is increasing and you're not secure," he said. "I want to live here so I can be free and go out without worry about anything."

A couple who arrived from Ecuador last December are a good example, he said.

Carolina Villota, 31, and Carlos Nielsen, 36, left good jobs in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, six years after her mother immigrated to Winnipeg in 2005.

"The political instability was crazy," said Villota, who has a degree in foreign trade and logistics.

"In four years, we had five different presidents," said Nielsen, a commercial engineer.

Ecuador suffered from hyper-inflation after it changed its currency, and the cost of living soared.

The couple decided to follow Villota's mother, a lab technician. First, they spent two years preparing. They learned English and studied the Manitoba driver's handbook.

When they arrived in Canada, they moved in with her mother, connected with newcomer agencies Manitoba START and the Immigrant Centre. They started searching for jobs and making appointments for road tests.

After a few months, they were both hired on the same day. He got a job in IT quality assurance with Wawanesa, and she went to work for Buhler Industries in export and logistics.

He passed his first road test and got his driver's licence. She did, too -- after taking the test twice.

"A full stop is a full stop," Villota learned. She was used to driving on Quito's narrow, jammed streets in an aggressive free-for-all style. Driving here is boring to her, but her husband appreciates the many rules of the road and more passive drivers.

Still, the couple, who met online five years ago, say they miss the food in Ecuador and partying with people who dance until six in the morning.

For Nielsen, whose Danish grandfather visited Ecuador 70 years ago, took home a bride, then had a son who returned to his South American roots, emigration was natural.

"My whole life, I always wanted to live in a better place. I always had that feeling."

His wife didn't.

"I wanted to support his dream." She had faith that they could succeed in Winnipeg, like her mother has.

But to be here, Villota had to give up her 11-year-old dog that couldn't come to Canada.

"He was like our son," said Nielsen, who carries a photo of the big bracco Italiano -- Italian pointer -- in his phone.

They're planning to have children and are saving for their own home. In Ecuador, it would have had to have high walls for protection. Their home and vehicle would have had to be loaded with protection and security features, said Nielsen.

Winnipeg is not crime-free, but they say it's a haven of security compared to the capital of Ecuador.

"You don't leave your car on the street," Villota said. "And it's more risky to go out late." "It's a way of life there," said Nielsen. "It's hard. Your friends get robbed."

"You have to look out all the time," Villota said. "You cannot drive with a window open."

They're both happy and grateful they're here now and appreciate Winnipeg's cold weather and warm people.

"I love winter," said Villota. "I really do," especially the look of snow.

Nielsen said being able to let his guard down a bit around strangers is something new and pleasant.

"It was really amazing. The people are so friendly and very helpful."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 29, 2012 J15

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