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Popular program gives new Canadians free access to cultural institutions

University of Toronto business analisyst Darshan Harrinanan celebrated his Canadian citizenship by taking his wife and children to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

When Darshan Harrinanan acquired his Canadian citizenship, he celebrated by taking his wife and three young children to marvel at the treasures of Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum.

In the year since that fall day in 2009, his family visited a variety of cultural institutions around the province at least 20 times – and all of them at no charge, thanks to a unique homegrown program that offers new Canadian citizens a 12-month "cultural access pass" to attractions nationwide.

"It would give me the opportunity to learn more about Canada, while at the same time spend time with my family," said Mr. Harrinanan, 37, who is originally from Trinidad and now works for the University of Toronto as a business analyst.

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The program, dubbed CAP and managed by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, is exploding in popularity: What started three years ago in Toronto with six participating facilities now has enrolment rates of 80 citizens a day, with 1,000 attractions nationwide expected to be on board by year's end.

The Institute for Canadian Citizenship was founded by former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson and her husband, John Ralston Saul. CAP was the brainchild of the late Mary Cone Barrie, an educator and the wife of popular CBC radio host Andy Barrie. The program is now in place at more than 600 museums, galleries, parks and discovery centres in Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, B.C. and the Northwest Territories. Information about it is handed out during every citizenship ceremony nationwide, and the number of pass holders is expected to balloon dramatically from the 33,200 to date.

"We hear from new citizens they may be Canadians on paper, but they don't necessarily feel like they belong," said Gillian Hewitt Smith, the institute's executive director, who was in Calgary last week to announce a major expansion.

"The more new citizens sign up," she added, "the more new citizens feel these institutions belong to them and there's more of an audience that we're bringing to Canada's cultural institutions."

Officials with cultural institutions view the program is more than just a patron recruitment tool – it also gives facilities the chance to learn about this country's newcomers.

"One of the things that I think is really important is that the new cultures will bring their stories to this fabric of Canada," said Anne Ewen, chief curator with the Art Gallery of Calgary, which just joined the program.

Twenty-two other attractions in Southern Alberta have added their names to the roster, including Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre in Crowsnest Pass and the Glenbow Museum in Calgary.

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Blane Hogue, executive director of Lougheed House, a national historic site in Calgary, promptly placed the 1891 sandstone mansion on the list after listening to Ms. Hewitt Smith's pitch. Mr. Hogue traded his Australian citizenship for Canadian 35 years ago and said that, as a newcomer, he would have jumped at this program.

"I would have been in it immediately," he said. "So now, for people to come to Lougheed House and find out about the history of this city and this province is fabulous."

By the time Mr. Harrinanan's cultural access pass expired, his family, including children now aged 9, 7 and 3, were hooked on the ROM and continue to visit.

"After that experience, Canada really becomes home because you're able to appreciate Canada and embrace the diversity and the different cultures that make up Canada," he said.

He also echoed Ms. Ewen's sentiments. "Being Canadian is not about losing your identity, but adding your identity to what is the fabric of Canada."

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