BRIDGETOWN, NS - Five middle school students from the Suqian Suzhou Foreign Language School in China woke up in Bridgetown Feb. 9. They’re here to learn all things Canadian - and started things out with bacon and eggs.
Before the plates were even cleared, Premier Stephen McNeil walked into the kitchen at the Trojan Sports Centre where they’re staying to greet the
young visitors and welcome them to Nova Scotia. While the kids were in awe of the lanky Canadian leader, he was downhome hospitable and gave hugs and high fives and told the students how happy he was that they were there.
It wasn’t platitudes. McNeil knows these students, and others like them, are important in growing Nova Scotia’s future. It’s been part of his agenda since he became premier.
The students arrived the evening before, Feb. 8, and explored Saint Mary’s and Dalhousie universities before heading to Bridgetown, where they had baked potatoes and meatballs, looked around, and took a quick tour of the new Primary to Grade 12 school.
McNeil sat in the boardroom of the sports centre with David Wang, chief representative of the China Business Bureau of Nova Scotia. Bridgetown Regional Community School principal Bill Reid was also in attendance, along with Shaun and Terry Saunders, Kirk Lycett, and Ryan White, who were representing the facility that figures in Wang’s plans to bring more students to Annapolis County and beyond.
While Wang has been bringing Chinese students to Nova Scotia going back to the year 2000, McNeil’s focus on Asia started more recently, when he became premier in 2013. And while it was about exports at the beginning, it’s about much more than that now, including getting a direct flight from China to Halifax. That’s what his most recent trip was about.
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“We’ve gone from about $100-million (in 2013) to over $600 million this year in exports into the Asian market,” he said. “The most recent trip for me was about how do I get a direct air flight in because this is the next phase of our relationship. It’s not only building this P to 12 opportunity, but it’s also given us an opportunity for these kids who come here to now go and look at our universities and then decide where their post-secondary experience is going to be. “
But, he said, the east coast has a geographical problem when it comes to Asia.
“They know a lot about Vancouver, and they know a lot about Toronto,” McNeil said. “What we also know, though, is that when they arrive in Nova Scotia, they love it. So, the question is, how do we get them here? How do we make sure that this is part of their destination? Our pitch has been ‘we’re the international airport on the east coast.’”
McNeil thinks that direct connection to China will lead to much more.
“It’s my belief that when we begin to understand each other’s culture, it will drive economic opportunity too because you’re in a very different situation,” he said. “Your relationship starts very differently. David and I understand each other culturally and in a friendship way. We’re much more likely to do business than if I walk into a room with David and we don’t know each other. I’m just another tall guy from the Valley.”
“For us, this was part of our vision. In 2013, we realized we had a trade opportunity in the UK and the United States, but the next big place for us was in Asia, and our first play was to get the products into the market and we’ve done that six-fold. It’s amazing the amount of product and we’ve been able to build on it,” said McNeil.
“The next part for us was this whole issue around foreign students, international students, particularly from Asia – from our P to 12 system, our university system, and then building our direct flight for tourism. This will drive economic opportunity. The impact of these five kids coming to this community will be significant.”
Building on the dormitory stay concept and the cultural experiences it affords opens up further opportunity for the province.
“My hope is when these kids come and start staying, we expose them to our universities. They’re world class. This is our goal. This is our hope – just continue to build. You build the first block and you put it in solid. You put another one on top of it and make it solid and continue to build.”
He described it as a very positive experience for Nova Scotia.
“It will be transformational, if it’s done right, for the province, particularly for rural communities,” McNeil said. “This is important for our kids in rural communities. You will see new kids come in here. It will force our children to understand and experience new cultures – different foods, different way we communicate, try to understand. That’s an important thing for those of us who choose to live in rural parts of Nova Scotia. We’re giving our kids an opportunity none of us would have experienced who were students here 30 years ago.”
All about language, experience
David Wang came to Nova Scotia in 2000 and fell in love with the province. He worked as a university recruiter to bring students from China. Now he’s bringing Grade 5 and Grade 7 students as part of a three-month English emersion program. The winter camp at the Trojan Sports Centre is a first and follows on the successful summer camp at Annapolis Basin Conference Centre in Cornwallis last year.
These teens come from Suqian, one of two Chinese cities that Annapolis County Warden Timothy Habinski signed friendship agreements with in 2017. The other friendship city is Quzhou, which sent the summer camp students.
English as a second language and gaining cultural experience is the point of the visit for the students.
“In China, the competitiveness starts at a very young age, so parents are eager to send their children abroad, especially Canada, because of the safe environment, and also the warm-hearted environment too,” said Wang. “So they get a certain western cultural experience too – and also improve their language skills.”
For the Grade 5 and 7 students, the visit is kind of a vehicle to get them thinking about studying in Nova Scotia universities.
“We call them ‘little seeds,’ so we have to plant them earlier,” Wang said. “After they have certain great experiences here, they will consider to study the Nova Scotia high school program at our city. So, they will eventually come here for university.”
Nova Scotia universities have an attractive study program for Chinese students, he added.
“I believe later when they finish university study, they will like to work here, contribute to the local society,” he said.
Back in the kitchen, Premier McNeil is presented with gifts from the students and poses with the kids and Wang behind a flag from the Suqian Suzhou Foreign Language School. McNeil walks with them as they explore the Trojan Sports Centre and they congregate in the weight room for more photos.
There was a busy day of activities ahead on Feb. 9. This ESL program is also a sports experience for the students, and they were headed to the curling club for two hours of instruction by Kris Humphreys. There was a tour of the Bridgetown school planned, archery, and a host of other activities that included Chinese New Year’s celebrations at Province House.
The next group of students arrives in mid-March as part of the Nova Scotia International Student Program, with Grade 5 students going to Lawrencetown Consolidated School and the Grade 7 students attending BRCS. It’s a homestay program with Chinese students residing with host families in the community.