When Nikitha Balasubramanya wanted to know how to celebrate her first Christmas in Timmins, she turned to Facebook.
The 31-year-old businesswoman moved with her husband and her young son from Toronto to Timmins last May. Balasubramanya and her husband are both Hindu, from India, and have never celebrated Christmas before. But she says she felt it was important to acknowledge the holiday for their three-year-old son, as they plan to stay in Canada and don’t want him to feel excluded from cultural events.
“It's good to have our own culture that's within the house, but he should also have something to share with everyone else,” says Balasubramanya. So, a month before Christmas, Balasubramanya wrote a note on the Timmins Facebook page, asking for advice on the best way to celebrate. The post received more than 600 reactions and almost 200 responses, with many recommending Christmas films, traditions, and activities Balasubramanya and her family could participate in.
“First of all, welcome to Timmins!” one user wrote. “One tradition we have is driving around to look at all the Christmas lights, the kids in the family just love it.”
Research has shown that, for immigrants going from large urban centres where they are more likely to have family connections, to rural areas where they have none, it is daily interactions with other members of their community that allow them to feel welcome.
While Balasubramanya is not new to Canada — she migrated from India to Montreal in 2012 to get a master’s degree — she is new to Timmins. And she had concerns about moving farther north. She worried about the snow, for example, and whether she would have access to Indian stores to buy food she and her family enjoyed eating. So when her husband got a job at Ontario Power Generation, Balasubramanya began relying on social-media platforms, such as Facebook, and other internet apps to build a community.
She posted a note on the same Facebook page asking for a realtor in Timmins and received hundreds of replies; she found a Facebook group for an Indian association at Northern College and was able to ask about the availability of Indian grocery stores in Timmins.
Basak Bilecen, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Groningen, says that newcomers are likely to ask for practical information or about more administrative things as a way to get more familiar with their new environment: “[People] can ask, where do I sign up for this language course, or where can I find this particular item at the grocery store, or where is the best place to send my child to school?”
One of the moderators of the Timmins Facebook page says that it does have the potential to be an excellent resource for newcomers, but as is the case with many other community pages, controversial topics that often involve some kind of political discourse tend to receive the most engagement. So why did Balasubramanya’s post lead to so many responses?
“I think it gained some traction because, no matter what way it was looked at, it would
have been extremely difficult and polarizing to put a negative spin on it,” says the moderator, who asked that their name be withheld. “Those are the types of posts that I wish would garner more attention.”
According to Balasubramanya, responses to the post have been reflective of her real-life experience in Timmins.
“You know, all the people are friendly, and everyone knows everyone. It's kind of a small world,” says Balasubramanya. Larger cities, such as Toronto or Montreal, can be cold, Balasubramanya says, and she has felt embraced by the warmth of a smaller community; in Timmins, she notes, it is more than likely that she’ll run into at least one friend or acquaintance during a grocery run and stop to talk.
“In Toronto, you don’t get any time for yourself,” Balasubramanya says.
In Timmins, she’s been able to make friendships online that have translated to real life.
Before she moved there, Balasubramanya sent Anusha R. Venkataraman a message on Facebook asking for the best daycare for her son.
“She found a couple of Indian names, and it was very brave for her to just contact us and ask us lots of questions,” says Venkataraman.
The two clicked almost immediately — both new mothers originally from India, they were around the same age and had relocated to Timmins from larger cities. When Balasubramanya moved, Venkataraman, who’d been living in Timmins since 2015, was happy to help her settle in. And when she found out that Balasubramanya was flying in with her then-toddler, she offered to pick them up from the airport and take them home.
It’s this type of kindness that, Balasubramanya says, has most struck her since her move to Timmins. She is still receiving offers of baked Christmas treats and virtual Santa sessions from other Timmins residents. When asked which tradition she’ll be implementing on Christmas Day, she says that they’ve already bought and decorated their tree and are planning to leave a plate of cookies and a glass of milk for Santa on Christmas Eve.
Still, she says, there are plenty of activities for her to choose from.
“I got so many ideas that I can use for, like, 10 years to come.”