Travel to the town of Gravelbourg, Saskatchewan during the summer solstice in June and you will see an amazing sight. Hundreds of people will be gathered inside the local skating rink to sample food from up to 18 countries.
This annual festival started as an idea in the mind of Toos Giesen-Stefiuk several years ago. She convinced six people to contribute food that represented their country of origin. The festival has steadily grown since that first year. "For a town of 1,100 people to have 18 different nationalities contributing to the festival, that's pretty exciting!" she remarks.
To Toos, it demonstrates the growing diversity of Gravelbourg and the province as a whole. In the past several years, she has seen a remarkable change in the province she has called home after she emigrated from the Netherlands in the 1980s.
"A lot has changed in the past few years. There are new people coming to town and, wherever you go, whatever you read in the newspapers, it's always optimistic."
Toos's experience is not only an immigration success story, but also demonstrates the positive impact immigrants can have on their communities. After she and her late husband moved to town, they started several businesses that brought jobs and revenue into the community.
In the early years, they started a construction company and built and managed a motel. After she lost her husband, she opened a coffee shop, Café Paris, bringing a European-style coffee house to small-town Saskatchewan. Since then, she has remarried, sold the coffee shop, and started a bed and breakfast with her new husband.
Toos has become an integral part of the community and its economic development. She has been an elected member of the town council for 12 years. She was a founding member of the Touch of Europe committee, a group of people who want to build on Gravelbourg’s francophone roots to attract tourists.
She is also currently working with a group who plans to convert a former school into a facility with condos, a care home for the elderly and an art gallery.
In her mind, the town has given back to her more than she has given. "The people of Gravelbourg have always embraced our family as one of them. In good times and bad times, they have been there for us."
As more immigrants move to Saskatchewan, Toos has some valuable insights to share with them.
"This is a land of opportunities," she says. "Whatever you want to do, you can do it here."