Drawing from his Ugandan heritage, Yuga Juma Onziga, founder of the Environmental Centre for New Canadians, has created a global village in the heart of a big city

By Allan Britnell

Located on the ground floor of a decidedly unfashionable city works department building in Toronto’s downtown Fashion District, the Environmental Centre for New Canadians (ECENECA) is a barebones, L-shaped office crowded with second-hand desks and shelves piled high with environmental books and brochures. On the walls are photos of past ECENECA events and images of founder Yuga Juma Onziga’s native Uganda.

Recent immigrants from all corners of the globe —Africans, Asians, South Americans— trickle in and out to fax resumés, practise their keyboarding skills or simply pick up a copy of the public transit route map Onziga, a stocky, kindly man with a measured manner of speech, established ECENECA in 1993 to help newly arrived immigrants understand that the environment can affect their health and quality of life, and to involve them in conservation activities. Along with ECENECA’s mandate to “deliver environmental education to assist new immigrants to adapt to Canadian culture pertaining to environmental issues,” Onziga says he also provides “empathy and general advice on coping with differences, like the weather.” His organization’s efforts earned it the 2005 Canadian Environment Awards (CEA) gold medal for Environmental Health.

Yuga Juma Onziga’s Canadian home is worlds away from where he grew up. The environmentalist was raised in Kobuku, the northwestern region of Uganda that borders on Congo and Sudan. His people, the Kakwa (pronounced “kah-qua”) live in grass-roofed huts that sit on plots of land where they grow their own food.Today, he resides in a high-rise apartment in Toronto’s St. Jamestown, one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in North America.

Of course, both communities are on the same planet and, in our increasingly shrinking global village, the environmental issues in one area can (and will) eventually affect another. But Onziga knows from first-hand experience that many new immigrants may not have the luxury of worrying about ecological problems. “They are not thinking much about their health and the environment,” he says, “because they are too worried about their economic survival.”

“People from other cultures coming to Canada should be aware of our environmental problems and encouraged to participate,” says Paula Prociuk, managing director of the CEA. “We were very impressed with the leadership that Yuga Juma displayed, and we felt that he could be a good example to new Canadians as to how they can be involved in the issues.” Onziga’s story begins in an all-too common way in war-ravaged, post-colonial Africa. His pursuit of a forestry degree was interrupted by civil war in Uganda, and he was forced to flee with his wife and two-week-old daughter when rebels deposed infamous dictator Idi Amin in 1979. (Amin’s father was Kakwa, and the minority Kakwa population in Uganda were “marked for revenge,” says Onziga.)

His family fled to Congo and then Sudan. Finally, in January of 1984, they immigrated to Canada, arriving in Toronto knowing no one in the snow-covered city. “It was like going from an oven to a freezer.”

With an incomplete degree and limited job prospects, Onziga enrolled in the agriculture program at the University of Guelph, where he studied environmental sciences, graduating with an honours degree in 1990.

His interest in nature is, however, more than purely academic. The Kakwa people have a very tactile connection to their environment. As subsistence farmers, they know that an entire season of labour-intensive work can be wiped out by locusts or drought. They also have a deeply ingrained sense of conservation. The Kakwa trace their lineage to a man named Yeki, who migrated from the east and settled on Mount Liru sometime around the 1700s. As the place where all Kakwa originate,Mount Liru is a sacred site.

“That’s where our idea of protecting the environment comes from,” says Onziga. “The trees, mushrooms, honey, even firewood . . . everything is protected. Every aspect of life [on Mount Liru] is respected.”

After finishing his degree, Onziga moved back to Toronto, where he worked with the South Riverdale Community Health Centre to raise awareness among recent immigrants of the potential impact indoor air pollution can have on their health. His work on that project and the connections he made inspired him to launch ECENECA.

Since its founding, the all-volunteer organization has held countless workshops and seminars, produced and translated brochures about environmental programs — such as the Guide to Environmental Education for New Canadians and a multilingual indoor air-pollution quiz — and regularly takes groups of immigrants on organized nature walks to familiarize them with the ecosystems they live in.

ECENECA’s volunteers are also willing to get their hands dirty for a good cause. As many as 75 people at a time have participated in ECENECA tree plantings or outings to clean up garbage in the Don River Valley, the latter often being an eye-opening experience. “I can’t believe what we’ve removed,” says Onziga. “Pop cans, tires, motorcycles…”

He believes that projects like the restoration work in the Don are particularly important for immigrants to see and be involved in as doing so can inspire hope that seemingly irreparable watersheds in their homeland—be it the Nile,

Ganges or Yangtze — can also be brought back to life. Onziga expands on that knowledge base by informing participants of the need for energy conservation and the benefits of alternative energy, and by trying to build an “awareness that toxic substances, like DDT, that are banned here can be found in their home countries where they have a detrimental effect on their health and the environment.” His hope is that the lessons learned here will be shared with the developing world. “Whenever they go home they can take not only material things, but also knowledge and an environmental consciousness.”

But ECENECA’s main focus is on the role immigrants can play in their new home. For starters, many aspects of conservation that long-time Canadians now take for granted, such as our curbside blue box program, are mysterious and new to immigrants.

“We recycle everything here in Canada,” says Nelson Rojas, a long-time ECENECA volunteer who emigrated from Bolivia. In most countries though, recycling programs are non-existent so “it’s a surprise to many that plastics can be melt[ed] to produce more plastics.”