Flood showed language barriers newcomers face during a crisis: community, multicultural groups

A man walks out of downtown Fort McMurray and across a mattress bridge over muddy waters as he gets to his vehicle on Highway 63 on Monday, April 27, 2020. Flooding forced many people to park on the highway and walk into the neighbourhood after roadblocks and floodwaters stopped people from driving into the community. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network ORG XMIT: POS2004271546180137 SunMedia

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With more than 80 languages spoken in Wood Buffalo, multicultural and community groups argue that April’s flooding has shown the challenges of getting emergency information sent to people with language barriers during a crisis.

Therese Greenwood, executive director of the Multicultural Association of Wood Buffalo (MCA), said her organization helped the Western Canadian Powerstrokes Emergency Response Team and volunteers translate forms for the food bank. Language barriers meant some food bank volunteers had trouble speaking with people who could not complete their forms.

Keyano College’s Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC), the YMCA and MCA translated boil water advisories and evacuation protocols into dozens of languages. LINC staff were able to reach most of the program’s 170 students, while Wood Buffalo RCMP was asked to reach less than 15 students.

Glenda Little-Kulai, chair of Keyano’s LINC program, said most students in the program lived downtown and were the most at-risk of missing crucial safety information.

“This is pretty essential safety information we’re talking about,” said Greenwood. “There is a particularly high need to get that information out—especially in the downtown where a lot of newcomers are located.”

Even when newcomers were located, language barriers still needed to be broken down as new information arrived. YMCA staff worked with Canadian Red Cross workers at their downtown location. When people returned home, YMCA staff went door knocking in flood-impacted area to deliver information on flood relief programs.

Kara Boulton, program manager for community housing initiatives at the YMCA, said collaboration between community services cut down, and exposed, many barriers facing newcomers in Fort McMurray.

“We have great services agencies, but we don’t have a ton,” said Boulton. “Together we can reach farther to minimize those gaps.”

The experience has made LINC bring in new procedures on what staff can do during a crisis. Little-Kulai hopes the flood will also be a learning experience for the municipality and Regional Emergency Services. In an email, a municipal spokesperson said improving ways to communicate with people during emergencies remains a focus.

“We continue to look at opportunities to reach all residents throughout the RMWB sharing education on preparedness and planning in emergency management,” the email stated.

The MAWB and Red Cross are still offering flood support, and a mental health initiative is expected to begin in upcoming weeks.

“I think what people don’t realize is flood support is still ongoing,” said Greenwood. “We’re seeing people dealing with some prominent mental health issues specifically from being flooded out of their homes during a pandemic.”