11/14/2014 04:31 EST | Updated 01/14/2015 05:59 EST

Teaching Newcomers How to Complain

I heard a story this week about a civics lesson. It did not take place in a high school. It was a lesson both learned and taught by some elderly newcomers who were participants in a civic awareness project. Along with learning to speak English and finding out about the systems and the laws of Canada, these folks are being challenged to engage with their new communities. For people who have grown up under repressive regimes, this is no small thing.

Some members of the group have come as refugees, some as immigrants, and others have been brought by their families to care for their grandchildren. They speak many languages, come from many countries and have many different living situations. All plan to stay here for the rest of their lives. What they have in common is their wisdom, their tenacity, and a desire to be included.

Civic awareness is new to many of these folks. In addition to going on field trips and listening to guest speakers, the civic integration project teaches some practical skills. One of the best ways to find out about how social systems and governments work in a country is to make a complaint. But one of the difficulties that newcomers of all ages face when they attempt to complain is backlash. This week, two separate groups of newcomers told me that they were regularly disheartened to hear, "If you don't like the way we do things here, go back where you came from."

Here is a little story for the people who say this kind of nonsense:

An elderly couple who like walking through their neighbourhood park noticed that, while there was a playground for children, there were no benches in the park. They told their newcomer group that they tired easily and needed a place to sit and rest. Like many of the people in their group, they live in high rise buildings in a community with little access to outdoor spaces. This park is one of those rare spaces.

The group leaders challenged the couple to find a way to have a bench placed in the park. They knew they could not just buy a bench and place it on city owned property. So the couple did research and they wrote to their city councilor. The councilor explained that there was a parks department that handled such requests. The parks department had forms that needed to be filled out and a waiting list for parks equipment.

The couple was patient. They used their new language skills and their tenacity. After more than a year and a half, they proudly reported to their senior newcomer group that the park now has a bench.

Who uses the bench? Well, the elderly couple certainly does. And so do new mothers, and young couples, and neighbours meeting for the first time, and little children who need a rest from running around, and people who need to stop to tie a shoe, and people killing time before an appointment, and workers on a lunch break, and on and on.

Yes, the elderly couple complained. But they also learned lawful and effective ways to make positive changes that benefitted not only themselves, but also their whole neighbourhood. So next time you look around your city at the things that need to be fixed, ask some newcomers to join you when you complain. You will be helping them to become the kind of aware citizens we all need to be -- the ones who make things better for everyone