Pedalling to empowerment

Community bike shop scene helps newcomers gain access to bicycles

For immigrants and refugees new to Winnipeg, the community bike scene can be a resource to bicycle access, mobility within the city and integration into society. 

Karin Gordon, an executive director of resettlement and a ‘house mother’ at Hospitality House Refugee Ministry (HHRM), heavily promotes the ways her clients can obtain bicycles in the city.

“The people I work with are thrilled to get a bicycle. It gives them mobility, we push it as a way to explore the city and get to places you can’t with a car,” she says. 

“It’s also great form of fitness and a perfect way to explore your immediate neighbourhood and make friends.”

Gordon encourages her newcomer clients to use WRENCH (Winnipeg Repair Education and Cycling Hub), a non-profit charity started in 2011 whose mandate is to remove barriers to building, repairing and maintaining bicycles with a focus on educating youth.

Located at 1057 Logan Ave., the organization supports schools and community bike shops with programming, education and resources to community members, youth groups and other non-profit organizations.

For Geoff Heath, the mechanical director at WRENCH, demonstrating to newcomers that cycling is affordable, healthy and convenient will help them see bikes as a meaningful way to get around. 

“That’s one of the reasons we started WRENCH.”

Heath considers the numerous bicycles that populate the balconies at IRCOM House, the 66-unit apartment block for newcomer families, as a sign of their program’s success.

“They’re falling out of the balconies,” he jokes, referencing the many bikes visible from outside.

At WRENCH, children under 12 are given a bike and those 12 and over are taught how to build one.

“The hardest thing was talking people through it,” Marty Cielen, a board member at WRENCH, says of the bike building process.

“It helps me communicate better, but boy, does it help empower them,” he says.

Heath has seen a healthy bike culture develop within the immigrant communities they’ve serviced, with bicycles becoming an everyday tool for them.

“For these kids, biking gets to be a big part of daily life. A lot of these people come from cultures where you couldn’t ride a bike – especially for women,” Heath says.

Last year, WRENCH started a women and girls-exclusive program for females interested in learning how to maintain and refurbish bikes, and how to ride safely with children. Last year also saw the first-ever Sister Cycle Series at Hugh John MacDonald School, a bicycle-focused discussion group for newcomer women, led by two mechanical instructors from WRENCH that aims to help integrate them into Canada.

WRENCH also helps facilitate a for-credit program for students at Hugh John MacDonald.

“Right from day one, that was one of the things we aimed to do. For a lot of these people, bicycle transportation is freedom,” Cielen says.

“It’s quite a melting pot, quite a cross section of society, I find it amazing.”

“One (client) from Sierra Leone rode his bike year-round. He called me in the spring because his bike had problems. I went to see him and it was rusted solid but he loved it, riding all winter on this old CCM bike.”

Every December, WRENCH runs an annual 24-hour bike building marathon from reclaimed parts from the Brady landfill. Last year, volunteer bike mechanics built over 350 bikes for children in need. 

For Robin Bryan, the general coordinator at the University of Winnipeg Bike Lab, the community bike shop infrastructure in Winnipeg is revered.

“Winnipeg has a world-renowned community bike shop scene,” he says.

“There’s a lot of people who are really excited at working with diverse communities and newcomers and that’s what motivates a lot of people – the accessibility that biking brings, people from all different backgrounds and income levels.”

Bryan highlights learning the bike building process as a worthwhile investment. 

“As a newcomer with limited resources, having a bike that’s functional can be a very important necessity and you can get there through community bike shops – it’s worth having the patience and having the energy to learning, not just to access it.”

“If you want to get involved in that scene, you’ll find a lot of really welcoming, but very busy, people. It’s a very welcoming group of volunteers.”

Despite the popularity of programming from WRENCH, there is still a need for bike accessibility city-wide for newcomers.

Fort Richmond Collegiate (FRC) has accepted numerous refugee students over the last several months. Michael Moreau, a math teacher at FRC, has seen the refugee students at his school risk isolation from the wider community through limited access to cars and poor public transportation in the suburbs.

He is asking the community for help finding bicycles for teenage boys from Syria who are new to the city.

“The students have identified this need to us. Absent any budget money for this, we’re reaching out within our community to find some used bikes for these guys so that they can get around. We need to consider additional needs and try to help connect kids and families to other services,” Moreau says.

Heath sees the value of a more thorough learn-to-ride program and instruction on daily bicycle trips as a logical next step for programming at WRENCH.

“We want to teach people how to get groceries with their bikes, and then how to pack them up on their bikes. We would love to run a program like that,” he says.

In Toronto, a Bike Host program matches interested newcomers with mentors who are experienced with road cycling.

Now in its seventh year, the program – run by the settlement organization Culturelink – pairs new immigrants with experienced cyclists who take them on bicycle tours and other bike-based activities.

Angela van der Kloof, a project leader at Mobycon, a transportation and mobility consultant group in the Netherlands, suggests starting the conversation with the 2015 short film Mama Agatha. The film depicts its subject, Mama Agatha, a Ghanaian community mother in Amsterdam, supervising cycling integration classes in the ethnically diverse southeast district with a large immigrant population.

For Winnipeg, van der Kloof suggests making streets safer places for people on bikes overall. 

“If you have this group in mind, the placement of dedicated infrastructure, or creation of areas with low speeds, could be focused in the neighborhoods where they live. So they can go and do shopping on the bike, or visit family or friends,” she says.

But for Cielen, simply providing access to mobility is rewarding.

“Newcomers come in here with nothing and we give them a sense of freedom and accomplishment. Building a bike is something that they did here. When you see it, it’s brilliant,” Cielen says.

Published in Volume 70, Number 26 of The Uniter (March 31, 2016)

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