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Canada Moncton ballet company looks to move the needle on immigration onstage and off

Yuriko Diyanova, right, from Japan, laughs while jokingly supporting fellow dancer Biel Torra Matamala, from Spain, before the company's first rehearsal of the season at the Capitol Theatre in Moncton, N.B. on Jan. 29, 2019.

Darren Calabrese

When he takes the stage wearing a traveller’s suit and black pointe shoes and clutching a worn suitcase, Thomas Badrock’s job is to convey the stark displacement often felt by newcomers to Canada.

He does not find this hard. Mr. Badrock, 21, immigrated to Moncton from Liverpool, England, last year for a job at the Atlantic Ballet. It is Canada’s most easterly professional ballet and one that has to rely almost exclusively on immigrants to fill its ranks.

“It was like starting a life all over again,” said Mr. Badrock, who, before landing here, had seen his new home only on the map. “It was so far away."

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Even though he spoke English, Mr. Badrock’s first months were riven with loneliness and isolation. Weekends spent alone book-ended long work weeks; Mr. Badrock wondered whether Canada would ever feel like home. When ballet brass learned how he was feeling, the company vowed to work harder creating a community to surround the newcomer lest it lose him.

It is a credit to their efforts that Mr. Badrock will dance the sole part in part in a production called Alien in three Atlantic provinces over the next month. The performances in Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia are part of a novel series of immigration summits that will fuse art and business to improve the region’s record with newcomers.

Yuriko Diyanova, centre, and others during rehearsal on Jan. 28, 2019.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

The summits mark the continuation of an experiment launched last year in New Brunswick that tests whether an ideologically driven ballet company can catalyze immigration across a region that is often apprehensive about embracing newcomers – and unsure of how to create communities they want to stay in – at a time when provincial economies demand a massive influx of newcomers.

“We are over the cliff and hanging on by a piece of grass. We will go out of business without newcomers,” said Susan Chalmers-Gauvin.

Founder of the Atlantic Ballet, Ms. Chalmers-Gauvin leads what is perhaps the most atypical professional dance company in the country, in part because it is so heavily staffed with immigrants and because of its commitment to moving the needle on difficult “social subjects” on and off the stage.

She conceived of the Moncton-based Atlantic Immigration Summit last year and hoped to forge progress by placing immigrant attendees at the same table as those who need them, starting conversations that might not otherwise ignite.

Olga Petiteau, from Paris, France, during rehearsal.

Darren Calabrese

“There was a strong sense that our business leadership was not engaged in [improving] immigration despite the fact that it is the biggest economic prerogative of our provincial economy right now,” she said. “We have the oldest population in the entire country in this region of Canada and our labour market shortages are extreme. We don’t exist in the future without immigrants,” she said.

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It is not just in New Brunswick that economic forecasts are grim. Even with modest immigration increases, GDP growth in Atlantic Canada is projected to remain “well below” 1 per cent annually through 2035, according to a recent Conference Board of Canada report.

The exception to this is PEI, where “strong international immigration” is driving economic growth expected to hit 3 per cent in 2019, according to the Conference Board. The rate of population growth on the island is the highest in the country, again due to immigration.

In 2017, the federal government launched the Atlantic Immigration Pilot, a program designed to expedite immigration to all of the eastern provinces by matching skilled immigrants with employers. While the program has had some success in attracting immigrants, the region continues to struggle with persuading immigrants to set down roots for the long-term.

“Immigration is a big challenge in New Brunswick. We aren’t that diverse. We don’t have a strong history of immigration,” said Rob Kelly, the assistant deputy minister overseeing the Atlantic Immigration Pilot for the government of New Brunswick. “It’s not only new for individual employers. It is new for individual communities over all.”

Margaret Brigley, Corporate Research Associates president, says her company’s polling reflects this.

Igor Dobrovolskiy, founding artistic director and choreographer of the Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada, in his office in Moncton, N.B., on Jan. 28, 2019.

Darren Calabrese

“There is still a perception among some that we would be best served by just having the same number of immigrants that we have right now,” she said.

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She says recent research shows that about 20 per cent think their province actually needs fewer immigrants.

Countering those negative trends, Ms. Chalmers-Gauvin believes, requires an unconventional dialogue.

“Government cannot do it all,” she said. “To keep people here for the long term, we need more than government programs to expedite their status. We need communities that empathize with and welcome them.”

Enter her ballet and its production Alien.

“We came up with the idea of creating a performance that would ignite dialogue among Canadians who can make a difference – people who own businesses,” said Igor Dobrovolskiy. Co-founder and creative director of the ballet, Mr. Dobrovolskiy, immigrated from the Ukraine. He is well-versed in the power of art as “a tool of ideology.”

“We need to step forward to each other,” he said of Atlantic Canadians. “Art is actually a vehicle to bring people to a place they can talk.”

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The artists with the Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada during rehearsal.

Darren Calabrese

There is much to be learned from the ballet’s own story. When the company launched 18 years ago, it was vaulted into what Ms. Chalmers-Gauvin calls “the business of immigration.”

“We thought that all kinds of people from Canada would audition to come here, but no,” she said. “It is hard to get people to move from larger centres to smaller centres. And it’s hard for multiple sectors,” she said.

Of several hundred job applications a year, the company consistently receives only two or three from Canadians.

“That means you’re hiring from outside the country,” said Ms. Chalmers-Gauvin, who had to become an expert navigator of immigration policies and procedures to keep her company afloat.

“We learned to make it work,” she said.

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