a woman in a green blouse and black hair covering carries a little boy on her back; a young girl is looking on and smiling.

Reframing Authenticity and Belonging with Insights from Immigrant Canadian Women

I did a research study about ten years ago that changed my thoughts about authenticity and belonging.

Early in my peace and conflict studies doctoral degree, I asked myself, "Were other highly skilled newcomer women feeling as lost as I was?" At the time, I had been living in Canada as a Permanent Resident for about two years. My doctoral research was not focused on migration and resettlement, but I took the opportunity to do a beginning study about immigrant experiences as part of a research methods course.

I read a story in the local newspaper about two highly skilled immigrant women who became Winnipeg-based entrepreneurs, and that was where my interest in untold stories began. The word authenticity did not come up in any of our conversations. Still, its spirit underlined the stories we exchanged about our experiences of coming to Canada, feeling happy to be here, trying to fit in, feeling lost, and then finding a different path to belonging. 

It was a life-changing moment when I discovered I was not alone. These women validated my experiences, and each time we met for the interviews, I felt less like a stranger to myself. By the end of the study, I developed a definition of authenticity that I continue to use today:

Authenticity is not a thing or end-state. It is a journey of discovering, trying things out, showing up, and living. Authenticity is you, as you are, showing up daily as yourself, no matter what.

People come to Canada for different reasons and have different lived experiences. But one thing is certain: we all want to feel a sense of belonging. We all want to show up as we truly are and feel safe, unashamed, and able to contribute.

Ten years on, my conversations about authenticity continue with women who live Indigenous, settler, and immigrant identities. In January 2024, I had a Mindful Lunch conversation about authenticity with Geraldine De Braune, a settler-Canadian and Integrative Coach. Geraldine has reservations about the word 'authentic' because we constantly negotiate how we show up, whether to lean in or lean back, to bring balance to our spaces. We work and live in a patriarchal system. Everyone deserves to feel authentic. Yet, we must often measure that against the temperature in the room.

A few months later, I had a Mindful Lunch conversation with Joy Idoko and Geraldine Gruszczyk, two immigrant Canadian women. Like Geraldine De Braune, they work closely with other women to help them navigate Canadian work and business culture. Understandably, the immigrant framework for authenticity is more complex. In addition to navigating the patriarchal systems that impact their feelings of belonging in the workplace, immigrant women must also navigate language, cultural, structural, and racial barriers unseen by non-immigrants.

The situation is complex, but every bit of learning and every conversation counts toward creating a culture of belonging. Here are four lessons from my discussions about what it takes to show up in the Canadian workplace and beyond. 

#1. Watch out for the Imposter. Imposter syndrome happens when you are in a 'survival job.' Immigrants are often expected to "pay their dues" and prove their value and social worth over and over again. The problem is that it feels like an unnecessary punishment for many women. They worked hard to earn valuable qualifications and credentials. Yet, language barriers, cultural incompetence, and even guilt and shame can stand in the way of not having the job they are qualified for.

The advice from those who have experienced imposter syndrome is this: You should not have to prove your value, but it happens. Do what you must to get 'Canadian-qualified.' Do the research, talk to other people, and do not be afraid to access support services aligned with your interests. And remember, if you cannot find the job you deserve, do not be scared to create it.

#2. Value-Oriented Communities matter more than you think. Your community does not have to be fellow expats or your family. Values such as good mental health, well-being, respectful communication, psychological safety, and individual rights and freedoms differ from person to person. Moving to a new country can be a good reason to form a value-based community that supports and reinforces your visions and way of being.

The advice from people who have found a supportive community: Be curious. Be adventurous. Connect with other groups and individuals with different backgrounds to learn and grow your cultural competence. Be willing to learn from others. Be ready to unlearn some things, too.

#3. Reframe the language barrier. There are many nuances to speaking English. Language mastery is more about cultural competency than speaking, reading, or writing. Cultural competency takes decades to develop, and everyone - immigrants and non-immigrants, native English speakers and non-native English speakers—needs to improve their cultural competency. 

The advice from native and non-native English speakers who have embraced cultural competency as a life skill: Everyone has an accent, even native English speakers. Accents should never be shamed or ridiculed. Always communicate verbally and non-verbally with dignity and respect. If you are new to English, give yourself time. Don't beat yourself up when you make a mistake; every new skill takes time. 

#4. Your mental health matters the most. Whether you identify as First Nations, Immigrant, or settler Canadian who has lived in Canada for generations, your mental health matters. Displacement, transition, resettlement, cultural incompetence, and identity suppression can affect immigrants and non-immigrants for generations. These factors seriously affect our physical, mental, and social health and well-being.

The advice from those who have experienced the immediate and long-run effects of immigration and transition: Have compassion. Self-compassion and compassion for others are essential. Be kind to yourself - remember that you are doing your best. Be kind to others. Assume that everyone wants to contribute. Assume they all want safety for themselves and their children. Surround yourself with identity-affirming people. Be an advocate for tolerance, patience, acceptance, and effort.

The bottom line:

What could you do to create a feeling of belonging for yourself and others? Immigrants come to Canada for different reasons and have different lived experiences that offer richness and diversity. Everyone has a basic need for connection, acceptance, and belonging. Every time we show up authentically, we remind others of that need and demonstrate that we accept their authenticity. This is an essential step towards creating a culture of belonging. 

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