Interview with Carl Nicholson


Carl Nicholson
Executive Director, Catholic Centre for Immigrants, Ottawa


Carl Nicholson is Executive Director of the Catholic Centre for Immigrants. He has more than 30 years of experience in the not-for-profit sector, including extensive experience on boards in the non-for-profit sector, particularly on those in the immigrant serving sector.  On the bright early morning of September 20th, we sat down with Carl in his office to have a heartfelt conversation with this illustrious son of Jamaica.



Can you tell us about your childhood?  How did that form your personality?

I was born in 1945 in Jamaica, one of six children. My parents were both teachers and were a part of a movement that was largely responsible for bringing up poor people, of different races not just black people.   In the 1930s, the black population had made little progress, the intelligentsia and leadership who were whites and mullatoes, was not interested in assisting blacks. So we grew up with a culture of resistance, a culture of the black race. My parents were a group drawn from the poor classes who managed to get an education and brought ideas for development to the rural areas.  These were things that informed my existence.

Where were you in Ghana and when did you live there? What kind of projects were you involved in?

I went to Ghana about 1975, in Accra and lived there for five years.  At the time I had about 120 young Canadian volunteers, who were involved in teaching in rural areas, doctors, pharmacists, mineral geological surveys, agriculture in the north, giving advice on how to store food, modern farming methods. I established a local committee of Ghanaians to help me decide how to best use the skills I was bringing, how to deploy the skills and fill gaps in the infrastructure, gaps in the system with a little bit of assistance from Canada.  As an example, drilling wells instead of drawing water from streams, showing farmers how to use bullocks for ploughing instead of hoes.

How successful were you in the 5 years you were there?

What I was doing was being a catalyst. What Nkrumah did very well was build infrastructure, he invested big time in education, health, built roads, electricity, transportation, trained a lot of people. The gap between delivering and infrastructure was large. But there were many Ghanaians who had knowledge.  What they needed was some catalytic events, mobilisation more than anything else, that’s what I provided.

When you left Ghana where did you go?

When I came back to Canada, I became West African program manager, finding assets, and resources in response to what they told me from the field.  I led a project which drilled 200 wells in 200 villages in Togo.  We insisted that it was only women who would manage the project, because it was women who fetched water.  Another project  gave loans to women to go into business.  Typically, at that time, in northern Ghana, women owned nothing.  We negotiated a joint approval system with the banks, with us guaranteeing the loans. This meant that women were running their own businesses, the bank was making money.  We created an active support network of Ghanaians who had knowledge and experience on how to run a business to assist the women. This project is still going on in 2013.

You were also in Nigeria?

I lived in Calabar for one year as field manager. We had negotiated with CIDA, Nigerian government, Rotary Club International, UNICEF and, 3 state governments, to set up an immunization chain, with a goal of immunizing a million people.   I also went to Mozambique, Gambia, I moved from there to raising money for all of Africa.  I remember going to apartheid South Africa and being declared an honorary white for the duration of my visit; I was the only non-white among a group of Canadians.

When did you move into settlement?

About 1993, the Catholic Immigration Centre, asked for my help to stop the centre from going into bankruptcy.  I helped them manage the process as an active adviser volunteer.   I then started as regular employee, by mid-1994 while maintaining my consultancy.

How has the settlement industry changed since then? What were your challenges you faced as Executive Director?

People from other countries need help immediate settlement, beyond that they need help with integration. Our community needs help in delivering on the promise of accepting these people as part of us, building a welcoming community.   Canadians are not having more babies, who is going to pay for our pension plans?  We used to get a lot of people from Europe; there is a shift now to Africa, China, and the Middle East.

What has been your biggest challenge? You’ve had major budget cuts in the last two years.

Fewer staff to do more with less. We had to cut programs such as matching new Canadians with old Canadians on a one on one basis. We’ve recently had changes in the way we manage the process of immigration, integration and selection. My larger challenge is not that of understanding the rules, it is getting people involved in being proactive in response to these rules.  I have about 80 staff speaking about 50 languages. They are not afraid of change, they‘ve themselves gone through some big changes.

Were your cuts from the Federal government only.  I understand your funding comes from other levels of government as well. What about United Way?

Our budget of about $8 million comes from the federal, provincial and municipal governments. Plus we raise funds too. We’ve been able to manage without United Way and been able to support our colleagues in their applications to United Way. We chose to use their money to support employment programs for newcomers through World Skills, through OCISO to focus on counselling.

That leads me to ask about your volunteer activities. Can you talk about that?  Everywhere I turn there is Carl listed as a volunteer. You were with the Ottawa Police as Co-Chair of COMPAC, Jamaican Association and so on. What does that do to your time and your energy?

I am fortunate to have a wife who understands that I’m driven to try and build a better world and a more harmonious community. I am fortunate I have the energy and the capacity to juggle a lot of balls at the same time.

Is there any aspect of your volunteer community work that you found most fulfilling?  Any that you found more disappointing?

What I had found most fulfilling, is helping my sister agencies reach their potential.  I remember when I hired the first person in our agency to help immigrants find employment.  When Jewish Family Services and I sat together, and I said I would give it space and they said they would provide the money. That’s how World Skills came about.

But that’s tied to your job. I’m thinking more of when you became Co-Chair of COMPAC, the Jamaican association, the Ottawa Police Services Board.

For me I count myself blessed that I’m able to have a relatively seamless flow between my volunteer activities, my job and my family life.

Your family must have suffered as a result.

Yes, but I make sure my weekends are for my wife mostly.  I love gardening,  I have my potatoes and carrots and I make time for that.

You have been with the Police Services Board for three years and you’ve been re-appointed for another three years. Have things changed since the Stacey Bonds affair? Have you seen a change in the way they deal with visible minorities? 

In the public discourse, there are expectations of people in North America, if you are black there is this image and if you are white, blacks think you have this image, perceptions.  I try to have realistic expectations of what I can do in the little time . We have a police service of over 2000 people, they have their own perception. My task in the police service board is first to understand. There are rules and you must obey these rules.  When for example you see the process such as the racial profiling, the “street stop” project, which requires officers to the best of their knowledge to determine what race an individual belongs to.

You’re talking about the traffic stop project?

Correct. To me those numbers don’t really matter. The real issue for me is that we are having a community conversation about racial profiling. I want young black people to understand that there is a rule of law you must follow. When you have an encounter with the police, there is a proper way to conduct yourself.  I want police officers to understand that we are not crooks and criminals by birth.

I am a part owner of the police, and police officers are my employees. When someone is aggrieved by some interaction with the police, the person who gets sued is me as an employer.  What I am looking for is peace on both sides. For sure the Stacey Bonds affair caused us to look at our systems, our structures, processes and to change them as best as we could to ensure that it can’t happen again. But those are surface changes. The change that we need is change in attitudes, attitudes which took centuries to form. On both sides and so we should not inform ourselves with conceit. I hold myself accountable.  But if I try to move a mountain with a wheelbarrow, it ain’t gonna happen.

How have black people reacted to your appointment/ any feedback?

Many people are very happy I am on the board, it gives them some comfort. Some people have also expressed some expectations, that things would automatically change. When they say that it gives me an opportunity to have a conversation with them that this is real life. I do not  have a magic wand that all of a sudden will make the 2000 members of the Ottawa police are suddenly going to do something different.

Could you address the relationship between blacks from the Caribbean and those from continental Africa? There seems to be a big divide between the two groups and yet we are part of the same heritage.

No, agreed we come from a common stream,  but we differ from the way we perceive the world. We also have in common the way the world sees us. We have a lot of differences, I don’t think anyone from Nigeria like yourself is more akin to do something as compared to someone from Namibia, as with someone from Italy and someone from Russia.  We come with different culture streams and we see life in different ways. What I am happy about is that in the grand cauldron, our children don’t see those differences, they see themselves as Canadians.

I am going to ask a very sensitive question. Do you consider people from North African, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco as African Canadians, of African ancestry?  Who do you consider as black? You may remember this argument on Black Ottawa Dialogue.

I would say that Africa is a physical place.  The Africa I was taught about was Black Africa, as in a way of seeing the world.  There is the physical reality and there is this other cultural reality. And there is a very African reality in north Africa as well, that is different from this other one.  This however is the Swahili-Bantu culture and over there is the more Arabic -Mediterranean-orientation.

Finally do you have any messages for readers of Black Ottawa Scene?

I just like to say congratulations for taking up the challenge of maintaining this communication vehicle,  that is so important to our community.  Let’s do what we have to do to make it succeed by way of supporting it. It is very important to our sense of identity, very important to understand how we mobilise ourselves,  a very critical vehicle.  And Godwin, thank you for taking up this mantle.

Pin It

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *