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Skiing opens up winter wonderland for immigrants

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Recent Jewish immigrants pose for a photo while skiing for the first time at the Chantecler ski resort.

Dozens of recent Jewish immigrants to Montreal enjoyed their first time on skis, during a day of fun that introduced them not only to the sport, but to seeing winter in a positive light.

The 46 adults and children who went to the Chantecler ski resort near Ste-Adèle, Que., in the Laurentians, are clients of Agence Ometz, which partnered with OuiCanSki, a new non-profit started by Sandy Wolofsky, who is sharing her enthusiasm for downhill skiing with new Canadians.

Ometz immigration counsellor Kate Oursegova is effusive in describing just how well the day went. “Successful is not the word – it was fantastic on many levels,” she said.

“It was so well organized, everyone was so welcoming, so patient, we were so comfortable. The people did not know what to expect, they had fears, but we were treated like royalty.”

Ometz clients are routinely briefed on winter – what to wear, the need for snow tires, etc. – but presenting the season as something joyful and wondrous is new.

The great majority of those who participated are from Israel, with one family from France and another from Panama. All arrived here in the last year or two.

Thanks to the collaboration between Chantecler, the Association des Stations de Ski du Québec, as well as private donors and volunteers, the package included return bus transportation, equipment rental, personalized instruction, lunch and snacks, notably maple syrup, to add a touch of authenticity. Everyone left with a pair of new ski gloves, compliments of Auclair, and samples of Felix & Norton cookies.

This support kept the cost down to $25 per adult and $15 per child. Wolofsky and Ometz insisted the outing be for the whole family, not just the kids. As Wolofsky pointed out, hockey, another typical Canadian pastime, involves the children, usually boys, playing and the parents watching.

The organizers say the participants have been extremely grateful.

“Please let me know when we will go again. I think I got ‘alpine skiing virus,’ can’t stop thinking about it. Our trip was simply fantastic, thanks to you,” wrote Marianna Levitan.

“We really enjoyed an amazing day outdoors and learning how to ski.… We are very thankful that they dedicated their time to teaching us how to ski. Now it seems a lot easier! We will definitely keep it as our winter activity in the future! We feel it is a perfect way to discover more and makes it easier for us to integrate,” said Ekaterina and Boris Medvedev.

That was the more general objective: even if they do not take up skiing, these newcomers got the message that the Quebec winter may be long, cold and snowy, but it’s better to embrace it than to hibernate.

Oursegova, who has lived in Montreal for 12 years, added that this was an opportunity for newcomers to meet and interact with the locals, which is actually quite rare. “Everyone was so warm, so generous, we see why Canadians are known for being nice,” she said.

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For Wolofsky, seeing the smiles on everyone’s face was proof that whatever trepidation they started out with had vanished once they made their first run down the bunny hill.

Wolofsky is a third-generation skier, who is proud her that mother strapped skis on her when she was just 1½ years old.

She became a provincially ranked competitive skier, coached skiing for many years, was a publicist for the Olympic freestyle ski team and currently represents several top Canadian skiers.

OuiCanSki, which recently received non-profit status, combines her skiing passion with another: helping immigrants feel at home in Quebec.

She is grateful to her maternal grandparents, Harry and Rose Rothman, who came, respectively, from Poland and Ukraine, as youths in the 1920s and caught the ski bug, learning the sport on Mount Royal.

Sandy Wolofsky, left, guides Victoria Zismanov down a gentle slope.

Wolofsky took an initial group of immigrants to Chantecler last year as a bit of an experiment. That group included 40 people who were associated with the Centre d’appui aux communautés immigrantes (CACI) in Cartierville.

It turned out to be as rewarding as the Ometz trip, she said, and her favourite memory is of a woman from the African nation of Guinea. “She was on skis for 10 minutes, took them off and declared, ‘ça suffit,’ but her smile from ear-to-ear told me she was glad she tried it,” said Wolofsky.

She gets tremendous satisfaction guiding fearful first-timers slowly down an incline and watching their sense of accomplishment and surprise afterward.

OuiCanSki is taking another CACI group to the hill on March 23.

Wolofsky is trying to dispel the perception that alpine skiing is only for the athletic and the well off. “Sure, you can pay $200 a day at Mont Tremblant, but it can be affordable – and it’s not dangerous,” she said.