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Lena Diab gets it

Not since the Kosovo War in 1999 has immigration been so front and centre in Nova Scotia. Operation Parasol was a military airlift that brought 5,500 Kosovar refugees to Canada and about half of them were brought to Nova Scotia for temporary accommodations.

Seventeen years later, the focus on immigration and refugees is even more intense, especially in light of Nova Scotia’s shrinking population. Stories about Nova Scotia’s efforts to welcome Syrian refugees and the government response to help facilitate that are a daily sight in newspapers, on television and on radio. It’s in this environment that provincial immigration minister Lena Diab has been serving.

“On a practical level, she’s raised the level of provincial nominees,” says Gerry Mills, the director of operations for the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS). In March, Diab negotiated with the federal government a 300-person increase to the number of new immigrants that could be accepted under the provincial nominee program, raising the number from 1,050 to 1,350.

Diab ran for the Liberals in Halifax Armdale in the 2013 provincial election and after her win was appointed to cabinet as the attorney general, justice minister, and immigration minister. In July 2015, the immigration portfolio became her exclusive cabinet position, which is a move Mills sees as being reflective of how important the province views immigration.

“It’s a real benefit for us working in the immigrant settlement sector to have a minister of immigration who only has that portfolio,” she says. “It means she has time and staff to dedicate to immigration and certainly in the last few months with [the Syrian] refugees, she’s certainly been there.”

In fact, Mills says at refugee events, she often sees Diab playing with refugee children, while Diab’s staff is trying to get her to head to her next appointment.

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Photos: Tammy Fancy

Diab understands what it’s like to be an immigrant—and not just because she’s the immigration minister. She was born in Halifax, the daughter of first-generation immigrants from Lebanon, but at the age of two, the family moved to Lebanon to help take care of her father’s parents. Diab’s family is from Diman, an area of Lebanon that has long served as a sort of immigration pipeline to Nova Scotia.

When the Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975, it changed life as Diab knew it.

“For the last year or so [that I was there], there were no schools,” she says. During this time, people in her village would gather the children together and teach them. Because of the civil war, Diab’s family returned to Halifax in 1976. She celebrated her 11th birthday in Cyprus as the family made its way back.

Diab’s trilingualism—English, French, and Arabic—is a huge asset as immigration minister and helps her form immediate connections with the refugees and immigrants she meets.

“It’s great to be able to relate and understand what people have gone through that left their homes, their countries, their life to come to another land where they don’t speak the language, don’t have jobs, don’t know what’s going to happen in the next month or two,” she says.

Diab says her dad did many things to provide for her family.

“There wasn’t much here he didn’t do. He did everything,” she says. Her father’s work included being a tradesperson, running a restaurant, working at a Coca-Cola bottling plant, and buying real estate to rent out.

The eldest of six children, family has always been important to Diab. She says being a mother has always been her first priority. She has four children who range in age from 15 to 28 and she also has two grandchildren.

“Everything I do stems from the fact I’m a mother and now a grandmother, and that’s why I feel I need to do as good a job as I can possibly do to affect positive change in this province for children and grandchildren,” she says.

In fact, it was her children who inspired her to run for office.

“I was seeing some of their friends who they’d grown up with looking outside of Nova Scotia for jobs or what they perceived to be better opportunities,” Diab says.

Before her career in politics, Diab was a lawyer for more than 20 years, which is something she wanted to do from a young age. She saw it as a profession where she could help vulnerable people. She went to Saint Mary’s University for her undergraduate arts degree and majored in economics and political science.

During one of her early university years, Diab worked as a page at the provincial legislature. Pages serve a variety of purposes, including passing messages between members, introducing bills, resolutions and petitions, and handling telephone calls for MLAs, according to a legislature document about the position. Diab enjoyed her time as a page.

“I loved working with people. I loved working with people that could affect change,” she says.

After graduating from Saint Mary’s, she moved on to Dalhousie University and received a masters of public administration (MPA) degree, followed by a law degree. She was called to the bar in 1991 and one year later began working at the law firm known today as Noseworthy Di Costanzo Diab Law (she became a partner in 2005).

Partner John Di Costanzo says Diab is responsive to clients and always made sure she did everything she could to help them.

“When she starts something, she’s very dedicated. She’s dedicated to completing it.”

While practicing law Diab also held positions with external organizations, such as the Residential Tenancies Board and the appeal court for property assessments, where some of the responsibilities included hearing claims, appeals and adjudicating disputes. Di Costanzo says Diab is talented at dispute resolution.

“She focused on trying to get people to agree on issues. That was always her main goal,” he says. Di Costanzo says Diab understands that when people can resolve disputes amongst themselves, there’s a much better outcome and they’re more likely to abide by it than if it’s imposed by a third party.

In addition to her legal career, Diab has always been a frequent volunteer, which includes serving seven terms as the president of the Canadian Lebanon Society of Halifax. As a soccer mom, it also means she notarized legal consent forms for when the teams travelled. Diab says she’s seen most of the province’s soccer fields and travelled extensively throughout the Maritimes as part of this.

As newcomers look to begin their new lives in Nova Scotia, Diab recommends they get involved in volunteering because it has many benefits. Not only will it allow them to work on their language skills, but they will meet people and feel like they belong.

“There’s no price tag to feeling like you belong,” Diab says. Whether it’s the arts, sports, or something else, volunteering will help make the adjustment to living in Nova Scotia easier. “These are the things that bring people together, regardless of language, regardless of anything that could divide us.”

Diab sees being immigration minister as a great opportunity to give back to the province that has shaped her and her family.

“It’s a great privilege to be in this position. I don’t take it lightly,” she says.

Planting seeds

When the first Syrian refugee family arrived at the Halifax Stanfield International Airport on Dec. 16, provincial immigration minister Lena Diab was on hand and even acted as a translator for the family. Since then, she’s met with many refugees.

The impact these kinds of encounters have is significant, says Gerry Mills, director of operations for the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS). She says it would come as a “shock” to have the immigration minister come and speak with the refugees.

“After the shock, I think it’s a case of, ‘Ah, that’s what can happen,’” says Mills, noting the seed that anything is possible gets planted in the newcomers’ heads.

The right fit for the job

Lena Diab’s skills and background make her a perfect match for being Nova Scotia’s immigration minister, says John Di Costanzo, a partner with Noseworthy
Di Costanzo Diab Law.

“You really need someone who understands it,” says the immigration lawyer who worked alongside Diab for more than 20 years.

Not only did she have newcomers as clients and practice immigration law, she saw immigration from a first-hand standpoint given her family’s background. Perhaps most importantly, Diab recognized how important immigrants are to our society.

“She understands what kind of contribution they make,” Di Costanzo says.

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