Newcomers can have tumultuous experiences, as local filmmaker Jason Gondziola explores in the documentary series Becoming Edmonton.

The community film project features nine short films and took two years to complete. Gondziola collaborated with Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society, Edmonton Multicultural Coalition, and Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers and received funding from Edmonton Heritage Council and Edmonton Arts Council.

“It started as an attempt to challenge and broaden our understanding of what it means to be an Edmontonian,” said Gondziola, who has worked in community filmmaking for the past 10 years.

Gondziola ensured participants had input in how their story was told and didn’t use any materials until they signed off on it.

“I didn’t want to do this project and take power away from people who were marginalized and traumatized,” he said. “I wanted to make sure the approach I had was one of consent.”

Living in a new community can be challenging.

River Schiml, a photographer, was outed as transgender at her blue collar job before she was ready and had her own newcomer experience.

River endured a difficult experience when she was outed as transgender before she was ready. | Jason Gondziola

“When you have white male privilege and lose it, you’re very aware of it,” said Ms. Schiml. River had a very difficult experience, with death threats and graffiti being some of the things she endured. But she found support. “There’s also another side of Edmonton—open and accepting.”

A supportive group of people and organizations (like HIV Edmonton and Pride Centre of Edmonton) helped her through the rough time. They were like family, she said, and helped her grow and develop. River now volunteers taking photos for HIV Edmonton and Pride Centre of Edmonton.

“It’s a good feeling to be of some worth to the community. As you help others, you help yourself,” she said.

River hopes the film “will provide some context and give people a sense of empathy and compassion.” For those meeting newcomers, “Have an open mind. Have an open heart. Have compassion and empathy. Some of the newcomers of Edmonton are coming from the most devastating situations.”

Karen Pheasant-Neganigwane, an Anishnaabe jingle dancer, university professor and PhD scholar, was a newcomer to Edmonton after moving from Manitoulin Island, Ontario in 2011.

“Edmonton can be very intimidating,” said Pheasant-Neganigwane.

She’s had her share of bad experiences, mostly of a racist nature, like when she was looking to buy a home and explained where she wanted to live. The real estate agent agreed, saying she didn’t want to live south of that area, because “that’s where all the natives live.”

But she’s also had positive experiences as a newcomer, like when she ran in the 2013 municipal elections and discovered people gave her a lot of support. “You’ve got to believe and have hope,” Pheasant-Neganigwane said. “We have to work together.”

Of the film, Pheasant-Neganigwane said, “I would hope that it would help people understand that newcomers have a story and are Edmontonians just as much as everyone else.”

View the films online at

Feature image: From left to right: Gondziola, Shawn Tse and participants Sarah and Rose. | Supplied