Experiences of Place: Immigration Experiences in Sault Ste. Marie

Introduction: The Research Project

My name is Jay Patel. I am a York University student majoring in History, and I completed an experiential education placement with the Canadian Museum of Immigration in 2022. The placement was with CMI’s Oral History Program, under the supervision of Dr. Emily Burton, and involved a research project on immigration to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

The project focused on 13 interviews conducted in Sault Ste. Marie (“the Sault”) in 2017 with people who came to Canada as immigrants or refugees.[1] Some lived in the Sault upon arriving in Canada, while others arrived there from elsewhere in Ontario. In the interviews, people share their stories of leaving their places of origin, coming to Canada, and living in Canada. The research project involved three phases: viewing the interviews, coding and interpreting the interviews, and writing a research report on the results. The blog focuses on the coding process, with examples from the codes for work and reflections, as a way to learn about and interpret the experiences of immigrants in Sault Ste. Marie.

The Big Picture: Observing Life Experiences from the Interviews

The first phase of the project involved watching the interviews, with the interview transcripts as an additional resource. It was important to view the interviews before beginning the coding and analysis. Coding is a valuable tool in working with oral histories, but it can miss the ways in which people’s diverse experiences might be connected. This initial engagement with the interviewees through the camera allowed me to learn about their lives and their journeys to the Sault, which in turn assisted me in creating the connections needed when coding.

A Closer Look: Interview Coding

Using MAXQDA, a qualitative and mixed methods data analysis application, I highlighted specific content from each interview using a series of codes. The project began with a preliminary selection of six codes: family, work, settlement organizations, reasons for moving to the Sault, community, and general insights and reflections. After viewing the interviews and reading the transcripts, I decided to divide “general insights and reflections” into two separate codes in order to focus on the interviewees' reflections on their journeys of immigration separately from general insights regarding their experiences in the Sault. I also added education and religion as codes, as many interviewees spoke about those two topics as essential parts of their lives and, in some cases, the reason why they moved to the Sault.

The nine codes used to analyze and interpret the interviews are explored in more detail in the project’s final research report. The interview participants arrived in the Sault from many places, including Angola, Argentina, the Caribbean, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Scotland, Sudan, and Syria. They all share the experience of living in the Sault. The report explores their relationship to place in the context of the shift in the Sault from earlier patterns of immigration, in particular from Italy, to a more diverse global presence in this northern Ontario town.

Coding helped me find connections among the 13 interviews. One way to do this was to see how often individual codes applied to the 13 interviews. The most-frequently-applied codes were family and education (95 and 90 excerpts respectively). These were followed by reflections (61), work (57), community (53), reasons for moving (28), settlement programs (26), religion (20), and general insights (5). I would like to highlight examples from the interviews for the work and reflection codes.

Work: “…a big honour for the team.”

An example of a segment coded under ‘Work’ is from Sunny Naqvi’s interview. He is from northern Pakistan, and also lived in Saudi Arabia as a child. He moved to England to study hotel management, and then worked in Oman and the United Arab Emirates before moving to Canada. In the clip, he talks about working in Oman and how this contributed favourably to his experiences working in the Sault hospitality sector:

So, it took a while getting used to. Our first year, I was a bit nervous because I wanted to prove myself that I could do it. I mean, I’ve seen a lot of GMs over the years in my life, so I drew back on the experiences of all the meetings that I’ve attended with general managers not only in Canada but back in the Middle East, in Oman. That’s where, I think, I was very lucky…to work in one of the best hotels in Oman, and with one of the best general managers over there. We’re very well trained, so that really helped me, and…I have a fantastic team. I think I’m the luckiest person in the world. The team is the best team in the world. They, we all get along very well, because we are not a very big hotel, but big enough…we are the first and the only hotel in Northern Ontario to win the Platinum Award, for to be a part of Choice Hotels…it was a big celebration for us, and it was a big honour for the team.[2]

This interview excerpt helps illustrate how work experiences outside of Canada may have helped people excel in work opportunities in the Sault. MAXQDA automatically groups this excerpt with the other 56 excerpts for work, providing an “at-a-glance” look at descriptions and reflections on work from all 13 interviews.

Reflections: “I need a roommate…”

Reflections is an important code, because it captures different experiences and themes not included elsewhere, and because it involves interview participant’s reflections upon their experiences. For instance, cultural adjustment and adaptation was not coded separately, but was a pervasive theme in all the interviews, and spoke to the differences between experiences in peoples’ places of origin and Sault Ste. Marie. Bassel Alkosani grew up in Syria and came to Canada from Lebanon as a WUSC-sponsored refugee to study at Algoma University. He reflected upon adjustment and adaptation in terms of living with a roommate of another gender.

This is your life. So, I remember one time, when my international advisor said, “Are you comfortable to live with a girl, living on campus.” I said, “No. Absolutely not. I would never live with a girl. Because I’m not, I’ve never lived with a girl…Then, after one year, I’m living with a girl right now in my apartment, because I need someone, I need a roommate with me, and I need to find someone. Said, “Oh, a girl.” Said, “Okay, that’s fine.” I live with a girl right now in my apartment, after one year.”[3]

Coming from a conservative country where rules are strict on inter-gender mingling, Bassel was unsure about the option of living with someone of the opposite gender. However, once he came to Canada, he understood the cultural changes relating to living with other genders and how that would benefit him in finding a roommate.

Conclusion: Shared Immigration Narratives.

I was honored to hear these stories and engage with the 13 oral history interviews. As a child of immigrants myself, I understood many of the struggles and challenges the interviewees faced when they arrived in Canada. The interview that resonated with me in particular, in terms of both his work and background, and his adjustment to the Sault, was with Sajjad (Sunny) Naqvi. He excelled in the hospitality business and worked many jobs in the field. His international upbringing and move to Oman to enter the hospitality sector was inspiring to me.

I was able to see my family’s immigration story through the lens of Sunny Naqvi. My parents also moved from South Asia to Canada, and faced similar challenges. Both struggled with cultural adjustment and adaptation, starting over in a different country, and the loneliness of being away from family. The link to both the Sault and the hospitality industry also resonate, as currently my family owns a hospitality business in Sault Ste. Marie. Oral History interviews provide us with the opportunity to learn about other peoples’ immigration experiences, and in the process, reflect upon our own.

  1. Search the Collections: “Sault Ste. Marie 17” for entries from the interviews. Argus: The Collection | Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 (sydneyplus.com)
  2. Oral History with Sunny Naqvi, interviewed by Emily Burton, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario (hereafter SSM), 17 May, 2017, Canadian Museum of Immigration (hereafter CMI) Collection. (17.05.17SN)
  3. Oral History with Bassel Alkosani, interviewed by Emily Burton, SSM, 20 May, 2017, CMI Collection. (17.05.20BA)