I first touched down in Canada as a terrified and overtired little girl.
It was September of 2006 and along with my parents and my four-year-old brother, I was moving across the world from England. I can still remember the mix of terror and excitement that pulsed through my body as the plane made contact with the jet black runway.
Looking back now, I wish I could recall all of the intricate details that formed this journey of mine. All I know is Canada welcomed a naive eight-year-old girl all those years ago and this country will always hold a special place in my heart because of that.
Acting a major connection point in Canada, the Calgary International Airport has 1.2 million travellers pass through its doors each month from all corners of the globe. As I enter the international terminal today, I find myself wondering, “Is everyone welcomed to Canada like I was all those years ago?” Unlike me, the innocent little girl who arrived with no emotional baggage, some people have messy life circumstances attached to them when they first arrive in this city. Yet, one thing remains simple, the humanity behind every story.
This thought remains in the back of my mind as I immerse myself in the contagious hustle and bustle of the international departures terminal. I pause by the entrance to take in the vast wall of windows, arching ceilings and sleek architectural design. As I observe the dozens of people milling around, I note the variety of situations that surround me.
From the East Indian family of five standing around numerous UHaul boxes to the mother stroking her young daughter's head as she sleeps on her lap, I realize everyone is on their own unique journey. As I continue to stroll around, I see a young woman FaceTiming a loved one saying, “I miss you. I love you.” In this moment, I realize it is easy to forget that each person who passes through the Calgary International Airport has a complex life story that weaves together to form an intricate web of human interaction.
As a White Hat Volunteer, Corine Frick is aware of the mixture of emotions that are experienced in the Calgary International Airport ever since it opened its doors in 1914.
“Some people feel really out of their comfort zone when they come to Calgary’s airport and they become anxious,” Frick explains. “My role is to reduce that anxiety so that people feel more self-confident, they feel well directed and they feel embraced by us.”
Calgary International Airport is also a place where moments of meaningful connection are experienced. Danika Hebert is a flight attendant at Calgary’s airport and she witnesses these types of moments every day on the job.
“I see people waiting for loved ones with signs saying, ‘Welcome home’ or people meeting their nieces, nephews or grandkids for the first time,” says Hebert. “Every time I walk past those signs, I get such a warm and fuzzy feeling because someone is so loved.”
Reunions like these are not uncommon in the Calgary International Airport. As I make my way through the international arrivals terminal, I observe the constant stream of travellers walking through the sliding automatic doors, their tired eyes eagerly scanning the crowd of people for their loved ones.
I see a young woman’s face light up as she makes eye contact with a man standing beside me. She immediately runs towards him, her massive suitcase flying behind her. As she throws herself into his arms, all I can hear is the muffled sound of laughter as they tightly embrace.
Not every traveller has the opportunity to be welcomed in the same way as this. However, Frick is determined to make each individual feel valued and appreciated when they touch down in Calgary.
“The overall atmosphere we contribute to is to make Calgary a place that is viewed as being welcoming to all people of all different backgrounds from all parts of the world,” Frick explains. “We like to make sure people know that we're genuinely interested in them and that we genuinely care about them.”
Frick believes each individual who sets foot in Calgary International Airport deserves to be welcomed and respected.
“It's like an extension of our own families and our own homes,” says Frick. "We are able to say, ‘You’re part of a big community; we value you, we value your visit and we hope that you'll come back soon.’”
Ultimately, this sense of community is what makes Calgary International Airport such a meaningful place. Frick believes there is beauty in the diverse nature of Calgary’s community.
“My greatest pleasure has been welcoming new Canadians and refugees. We try to give them the most royal welcome,” says Frick. “We also make sure they know that we're proud to be Canadians, we're proud to be Albertans and we're proud to be Calgarians. So when we're welcoming those international flights, each of us try to portray ourselves as being really genuine, that this welcome is from the heart and that we're very happy they’re here.”
Meagen Knoop, manager of the White Hat Volunteer program, believes her volunteers are the ones who establish this foundation of acceptance in Calgary International Airport.
“What gives this airport its sense of place more than anything is its White Hat Volunteers,” says Knoop. “People see our volunteers and they see Calgary.”
For many new travellers who enter Calgary International Airport for the first time, being greeted by a White Hat Volunteer is incredibly meaningful. Frick explains something as simple as welcoming someone in their language can have a massive impact.
“I met a lady that was visiting here from Quebec who did not speak any English,” says Frick. “She burst into tears when I responded to her questions in French. She couldn't believe there was someone who could help her in her language. When you have that kind of impact on someone where they are just so grateful to be received in their own language, it's a reminder that Calgary International Airport values diversity.”
Knoop places great value on this sense of hospitality Calgary International Airport embodies.
“Calgary International Airport is the epitome of Western hospitality and Western spirit,” says Knoop. “However, it doesn’t come from the building; it comes from the people. I often say that White Hat Volunteers really are the heart and soul of Calgary International Airport.”
Frick believes that she, along with the other 460 White Hat Volunteers, are the eyes and ears of the Calgary International Airport. She explains it is her mission to share as many meaningful interactions with travellers as possible.
“I try every day to think that I might be interacting with someone who's never travelled before, who has never had an experience of Calgary before and maybe I can make a difference in how they feel.”
On the other hand, for someone like Hebert whose job is travelling, Calgary International Airport is her second home. Yet the daily interactions she shares with people during her workday remind her of why this airport is such a special place.
“When I'm at work and in my uniform, I see kids walking around with their parents and they are just so excited to travel and that makes me excited again,” says Hebert. “It really reminds me that for me, being at Calgary International Airport is my day-to-day and it's my work but for most people, it’s a real experience. It’s something they’ve been looking forward to.”
Ever since my plane first touched down in Canada in 2006, I have spent numerous hours at the Calgary International Airport. More than a decade later, I now see this airport with a new set of eyes.
After observing the intricate interactions that make this airport such a meaningful place, I am left with a simple thought; the Calgary International Airport is a celebration of humanity. Regardless of background or life story, the Calgary International Airport is a place that embraces all. As I stand in the international arrivals terminal, I smile as I remember the little girl who timidly stepped off that plane all those years ago.
If only she knew the grand adventure she was embarking on.
- By Sarah Green