Newcomer YouTubers help immigrants get settled in Canada with advice and candid takes

The Globe and Mail

Dakshana Bascaramurty The Globe and Mail 21 December 2022

The Idumota Market in Nigeria’s capital – also known as Lagos Island Market – is a dizzying warren of shops and street vendors selling house slippers, dresses, bottled water, wristwatches, knockoff designer purses, and almost any other material goods one could want. After Ogheneruona Balogun made the journey from Lagos to New Brunswick earlier this year, she missed it desperately.

Then she discovered the Costco in Moncton.

“Guys, believe me when I tell you, Costco is the Idumota Market of Canada,” Ms. Balogun, a 28-year-old YouTuber, says in a video tour of the store, her camera panning over the sprawling electronics area. “They sell everything you can think of, from electronics – this is the electronics section as you can see the TVs, the flat screens here – to groceries to clothing to you name it. Anything you can think of is here.”

According to YouTube metrics, 60 per cent of her audience is in Nigeria and she, like a growing number of Canadian newcomer YouTubers, has put her new home on the map for prospective immigrants thousands of kilometres away.

Search for any mid-sized Canadian municipality on YouTube followed by the word “immigration” and you’ll likely find videos made by newcomers explaining everything from how they found an apartment in that particular city, to which grocers to visit to buy snacks when you’re homesick, to what driving on icy prairie roads is really like.

Canada is aggressively recruiting newcomers (the country’s target for 2025 is 500,000 new permanent residents) and the latest census data show a growing number are settling in towns and cities outside of major urban centres. But with an underfunded settlement sector and few resources to find out about their future homes, newcomers are turning increasingly to the candid video accounts of those who arrived in Canada just months or years before them.

YouTuber Piyush Gupta (43,700 subscribers), an international student at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., gives his viewers an intimate account of what hospitals are like in the video “Reality of ‘Free Healthcare’ in Canada.” Mr. Gupta, like so many Indian international students, chose Thompson Rivers University at the suggestion of an educational consultant he hired in Delhi to help him navigate the process. That experience of learning how much he didn’t know about his new home until he arrived, how much he’d been misled about the costs and the culture shocks he wasn’t prepared for were the impetus to make his channel.

Coming from Delhi, Mr. Gupta’s first month in Kamloops was a shock. “That’s it? The city starts and ends here?” he thought. But now he’s become an ambassador for the city on his channel, where most of the content is in Hindi (much to the annoyance of some viewers who don’t speak the language and beg for content in English). “I want to put it out there that Canada is beyond Toronto, beyond Vancouver, beyond Calgary,” he said. “Living in a smaller city has brought me peace.”

He’s careful to balance the pluses with the downsides of his experience, like the overall high cost of living. And he’s posted many videos demystifying the application process for international students in hopes that they can make better-informed decisions and avoid paying a consultant. “I don’t want to gate-keep,” he said. “I want to put it out there that hey, this is the information that I have. Learn from me so you don’t make the same mistakes.”

He, like many YouTubers, often includes a disclaimer with his videos: he’s not an immigration lawyer, so viewers should do their own research through official channels as well before filling out any applications. Some have asked him for videos about the process of applying for permanent residency and he tells them, “I’m not on that journey yet, but when I am, I will make a video for you.”

When Habiba Onuorah learned about the permanent resident stream to come to Canada, the first place she turned to for research was YouTube.

“The information was more exciting, more interesting” than the dry content she found on government websites, she explained.

But still, there was little she could find from others who’d migrated from West Africa and took it upon herself to fill the gap.

Much of the research she did on Halifax led Ms. Onuorah to believe that Atlantic Canada was “predominantly white people” and that it was going to be difficult to find any of the foods she’d enjoyed back home. Her family packed several pounds worth of beans, Golden Morn cereal and Indomie noodles — only to learn, upon their arrival, that these items were readily available at local African grocers and some even at Walmart.

In her video African Grocery Shopping in Halifax!, Ms. Onuorah, who has 13,900 followers, reassures viewers they don’t need to cart beloved foods halfway around the world. But does the store carry waterleaf, ugu leaf and periwinkles, a viewer wonders in the comments. Ms. Onuorah replies they have the first two but will get back to her about the third.

It’s a level of interaction and personability that simply doesn’t exist elsewhere for prospective immigrants and that has made channels like Ms. Onuorah’s so popular.

YouTube may be a relatively new medium, but this trend is part of a long tradition of newcomers helping each other, says Valerie Preston, a professor of geography at York University who researches migration and settlement.

Not only are these videos a useful tool for navigating the challenges of migrating between countries and adjusting to life in a new place, she said, “they also help to build social capital and build social relations, which break down some of the isolation that almost inevitably accompanies migration.”

Ms. Balogun encouraged followers to get in touch with any questions and has fielded requests from her viewers for airport pickups or help with accommodation. In cases where she can’t help directly, she connects them with local service organizations or immigrant communities.

A few months after her arrival, Ms. Balogun got a job at a bank. Weeks later, she made a video about furniture shopping, stopping into a local thrift store to show her audience what was available secondhand in Moncton.

She also took an aspirational tour of The Brick, gushing over brown leather sofas and feathery purple throw pillows. “It’s giving, as in, it’s giving luxury,” she narrated. “I wish I could just bundle one set and drop it in my house. But,” she said, sucking her teeth, “I shall come back when I’ve made enough money.”