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New Westminster community works to balance history with diversity

The city isn't as urban as Vancouver, but as 22-year-old Dana Cook said about it, "New Westminster doesn't quite fit into the category of suburb either."

Last night, a meeting highlighted the community's efforts to maintain its long history and tradition, while embracing 108 different dialects and a history of difficult relations with newcomers. The local high school is built on multiple cemeteries, for instance, and past discrimination against the Chinese community between 1860-1926 culminated in a formal apology from the Mayor last September.

Even within the seniors community there is fragmentation, said Krista Fraze, who works for New Westminstser's Senior Services. In addition to seniors with lifelong learning disabilities, there are also immigrants with language handicaps. Their common ground may be the challenges they face with transportation, care and mobility.  As the province's oldest city, first capital and home to the province's first public library, New Westminster is a city with a rich history steeped in tradition.

All of this adds up to questions about belonging and trust, questions New Westminster residents discussed last night as part of a series of community dialogues facilitated by the Vancouver Foundation.

The dialogue highlighted the difficulty of determining how to include newcomers, transients and established residents.

The composition of participants present at the meeting alone seemed to highlight the difficulty of engaging a diverse community.  Of those present only two were under the age of forty, and in a city with a single high school that has an enrolment of 2,100 students no participants were under the age of 20.

Also, many of the city's residents commute to other cities for work.The city is a transportation hub with five Skytrain stations that connect suburbs both north and south of the Fraser River with Vancouver. Local drivers can reach the US border, downtown Vancouver and the airport, all within 30 minutes.

There are also a multitude of services available for residents. There are walkable elementary schools in each major neighbourhood, and a variety of housing options that make the city ideal for new families. For newcomers, the Immigrant Services Society and the Centre for Integration of African Immigrants both have offices in the city to help with integration. There are also substantial short-term and long-term resources available for first responders, individuals who suffer from addiction and abuse as well the homeless.

For those who want to escape the intensity of Vancouver proper while staying close to the city, there are a variety of independent local businesses, restaurants and bars, as well as the suburb's answer to Granville Island: River Market.

As long time resident and former city counsellor Calvin Donnelly said, the city has been building in anticipation of an increase in density and now it has to adapt to include the wealth of needs and interests of the individuals who now live there.

The dialogue comes as a result of the Vancouver Foundation 2010 Vital Statistics report that highlights a discrepancy between how well communities function according to statistics and how well residents perceive them to function, said Vancouver Foundation President and CEO Faye Wightman. As the second largest provider of funds for community development projects in B.C. after the government, Vancouver Foundation wants to know how residents want to use available funds, said Wightman.

While the meeting did not resolve how exactly to engage all residents so they feel a greater sense of belonging and trust within the community, it did raise a variety of perspectives to contribute to the Vancouver Foundation and the city's work.

The next dialogue will be held at Heritage Hall in Vancouver on June 28th at 6:00pm

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