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How can we help Canadians feel more included?

When Kristina Pandilovska moved from her home country of Macedonia to Canada in May 2008, she was just 18 years old and felt overwhelmed by Toronto’s skyscrapers and busy city life.

Homesick, she longed for her former life and went back home to Macedonia every summer where her mother still lived.

That mindset didn’t change until Pandilovska obtained Canadian citizenship eight years later, when she received a Cultural Access Pass (CAP) in her citizenship package.

The pass, which offers new citizens free admission to over 1,400 cultural institutions across the country, gave Pandilovska the opportunity to connect with her new home in a meaningful way. While it was a long, emotional journey, she now says that she’s proud to call Canada home.

“Our participants tell us that this program has made them feel included and has made them feel a special sense of belonging,” says Yasmine Mohamed, director of the ICC’s Cultural Access Pass program.

“These are cultural institutions that they keep coming back to after they visit during their Cultural Access Pass membership. They bring their family and friends to continue to develop that relationship. Through that, they’re really building long-term community connections and growing their network.”

Pandilovska’s struggle isn’t unique. Across the country, isolation has increasingly become a problem for both newcomers to Canada and longtime residents alike.

According to a survey conducted by Environics Research for TD Bank Group in March 2018, 34 per cent of Canadians don’t feel included in their communities.

But why do they feel excluded? A meta-analytic review from 2010 conducted at Brigham Young University hints at some of the answers.

The study found that loneliness can be more harmful to your health than smoking, whereas strong social relationships increase your rate of survival by 50 per cent.

It also suggests that less exposure to friends and peers can contribute to social isolation.

Here's a chart that also adds some context. Census data from 2016 revealed that 28.2 per cent of Canadian adults live alone — the highest-ever rate and, for the first time, the most common household type in Canada.

The desire to better help people connect with one another is part of the reason why TD launched The Ready Commitment in 2018, an initiative targeting $1-billion towards community giving by 2030 in four different areas. One of them, Connected Communities, aims to create opportunities for people to participate in their communities and feel a sense of belonging.

In that regard, TD has helped fund a number of organizations – including the Cultural Access Pass program with the ICC. Additionally, TD has been a strong supporter of initiatives that bring the community together such as street and music festivals, and also places special emphasis on supporting underrepresented groups. TD funds over 83 Pride festivals and over 160 LGBTQ2+ organizations, along with places like The Kenojuak Cultural Centre, which showcases Inuit art.

Among the long list of notable organizations is the Youth and Philanthropy Initiative (YPI), a national program that challenges students to spend time researching and volunteering with local charities, and in the process vie for a $5,000 grant for their chosen organization.

The aim is to create more opportunities for young people to get involved with local initiatives and have shared experiences with people from different walks of life, a cause that TD also champions.

“Some parts of their journey include having to actually pick up the phone, call people in the community, set up a time to come and visit them and let them know why they’re interested in their work,” says Holly McLellan, executive director of YPI.

“More and more of our interactions are happening through screens and this project insists on real-life relationships and communication with a real person in real time of real issues.”

Ms. McLellan points to young women like Falak Shaikh, a Grade 10 student at Sinclair Secondary School in Whitby, Ontario, as one young person who has benefited from YPI’s mission. For her YPI project, Ms. Shaikh chose to spend time with Girls Inc. of Durham, a local charity that empowers young women.

“I worked with girls aged five to 13 there," says says Ms. Shaikh. " We did a lot of workshops and activities like talking about unhealthy and healthy relationships with your friends, peers and parents. I got the chance to be a role model for these girls and felt connected to the community knowing that I was helping to make a difference in girls’ lives.”

More importantly, Shaikh’s time with the charity helps prove that social participation is an effective way to combat loneliness and draw closer ties to within communities.

“The whole process has not only helped me connect with the local community but it brought me a lot of awareness about issues,” she says.

“I feel that many of our teenagers are caught up in the world of social media. We kind of live in our own bubble and I think that’s when we lose the opportunity to venture out.”

CREDITS: Produced by GLOBE CONTENT STUDIO; Photography for Kristina Pandilovska and Falak Shaikh by THOMAS BOLLMANN; YPI images courtesy of YOUTH AND PHILANTHROPY INITIATIVE; All other images from ISTOCK

This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's Globe Content Studio, in consultation with an advertiser. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.