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Young Geoffrey

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The Importance of Remembering the Past [Jan. 26th, 2008|04:30 pm]
Young Geoffrey
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I remember riding the subway one day back in the late 1980s and noticing just how many of the people around me were not white and for whom English was not their first language. Mulroney had opened the immigration floodgates, the results were beginning to be visible (as it were) and I was beginning to worry.

"We're taking in too many people, from too many places, too fast," I said to my friend John. How could such an influx be integrated into our society? I wondered.

John suggested I was being an idiot and possibly a racist, to boot.

He was wrong about my racism, but right that my fears were misplaced, as the subsequent 20-odd years have amply demonstrated.

During that time, immigration to Canada - and especially to Toronto - has continued apace, and yet the sky has not fallen.

But the worries I expressed some 20 years ago are still being expressed. Which brings me to the January/February issue of The Walrus and editor Ken Alexander's a-historical column, "Puzzling Ethnicity", in which he makes the startling observation that immigrants tend to settle near one another and, in a bizarre twist of logic, blames this process on the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

Walrus cover

It wasn't supposed to be this way in Toronto the Good, or in Canada as a whole: we were never supposed to be a racial nation...I suspect these mislocations have been accelerated by the central event of the new world order, September 11, 2001, and the thoughts that spill from it: how can I embrace or trust the other when he may reject what I care about and affirm — permissive liberal democracy, for instance — and just might be wearing a suicide bomber's belt?

While ethnically-based neighbourhoods are far from ideal, the fact of them is as old as immigration itself. Simply put, newcomers who group together are able to build networks with each other much faster than they can with those who don't share their language and experience.

My maternal great-grandparents came (separately) to this country in the early years of the 20th century, part of the large Finnish diaspora of that era.

Like Ethiopian immigrants today, like the Greeks and the Portuguese in the 1950s, my ancestors did, in fact, create for themselves what Alexander called "a world apart". The Finns tended to settle in the same areas; Finnish immigrant married Finnish immigrant; Finnish-language newspapers and magazines were established and, for a time, flourished; even Old World political battles continued to be waged here on Canadian soil, only slowly being modified by the advance of time and a growing experience and involvement with strictly Canadian issues and disputes.

Homesteading outside of Sudbury, my great-grandparents' children were raised with Finnish as their first language, encountering English only when they were old enough to go to school. Nevertheless, among my grandmother's brothers came a master carpenter, an architect and a psychologist. My grandmother herself dabbled in writing - in English! - even if she remained fluent in Finn until the day of her death.

The same pattern is true of my father's side of the family, Slavs who settled in the Ottawa valley.

The point, in answer to Alexander's discovery that immigrants like to flock together, is simple: 'twas ever thus, and especially so during periods of high immigration.

As previously cited in these pages (Allan Gregg, "Identity Crisis," March 2006), a 2006 Statistics Canada report, "Visible Minority Neighbourhoods in Toronto, Montréal, and Vancouver," suggests that ethnic groups are self-segregating at an alarming rate. Writes Gregg: "In 1981, Statistics Canada identified six 'ethnic enclaves' across the country . . . [By 2001] that number had exploded to 254." Following an established pattern of chain-link migration — wherein members of particular foreign communities arrive first and beckon others to follow — combined with relatively large immigrant inflows, part of this is natural and expected. But as the current debate in Quebec over "the reasonable accommodation of minority groups" indicates, diversity in Canada is a troubled thing, and this trouble is felt most profoundly within the broad borders of Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, where nearly three-quarters of new arrivals land.

In 1981, Canada had held open the door to non-European immigrants for not quite 15 years, and Brian Mulroney's government had not yet come to power; there were not yet the sheer number of newcomers necessary to create a significant number of new ethnic neighbourhoods. (See this Statscan chart for a useful overview of historical immigration patterns.)

Does this mean there are no problems with integrating 200,000-plus immigrants into a country of 30,000,000 people every year? Of course not. But those problems have more to do with economics (there are far fewer well-paying blue-collar jobs than there used to be) than with the natural desire of people to understand the language of their neighbours.

Nevertheless, having lived in Toronto's Kensington Market and now residing in Parkdale, I know from experience the vibrancy that can exist in heterogeneous neighbourhoods and am by no means saying ethnic neighbourhoods should be encouraged. But neither is their existence a reason for despair. Alexander rightly notes that our official multiculturalism policy not only encourages "...lively festivals and the celebration of exotic food and dress [but also] that it mean[s] cultural retention..." Wrongly, he believes this state-sanctioned social-engineering policy has worked and that "...now we have blowback and the various challenges being waged over what constitutes reasonable accommodation for minority groups."

Well yes, we do. And so what?

Canadians have been arguing over reasonable accommodation between groups and, more importantly, between individuals, for 400 years or more. Where other countries have settled their differences through the barrel of a gun, Canada has opted for eternal argument, a process of evolution instead of revolution. We change our immigrants slowly, and slowly, our immigrants change Canada.

For the record, my extended family now includes (former) Belgians, English, First Nations, French, Germans, Italians, Jews, Nigerians, Norwegians, Poles, Russians, Scotts and Ukrainians - Canadians all.

Canada faces many problems, but the choice of immigrants to settle close to one another is not among the significant ones.

* * *

Despite my argument with its editor, The Walrus is a very good magazine and getting better. You should pick it up.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: geonarcissa
2008-01-27 04:59 am (UTC)
I really enjoy The Walrus.

I don't see how a new immigrant, particularly one who doesn't speak English fluently yet, and who belongs to a minority ethnic group, could successfully make the transition without having a buffer zone, a community, and a network of personal connections and resources to help.

If I ever moved to a different country and a different culture, I would certainly seek out other North Americans to connect with.
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[User Picture]From: ed_rex
2008-01-27 04:20 pm (UTC)

The Walrus

I too enjoy it. In fact, I had coincidentally sent off a subscription form only a couple of days before I picked up the current issue. But still, there is a kind of earnest, small-L liberal, do-gooder smugness to it that gets to me sometimes. Too much Shelagh Rogers and too little Anna Maria Tremonti, as it were.

But yeah, I'm looking forward to finding it in my mailbox again.

I don't see how a new immigrant, particularly one who doesn't speak English fluently yet, and who belongs to a minority ethnic group, could successfully make the transition without having a buffer zone, a community, and a network of personal connections and resources to help.

Very nicely-put. And especially for those working shit-jobs and trying to raise a family.
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[User Picture]From: geonarcissa
2008-01-28 01:42 am (UTC)

Re: The Walrus

But still, there is a kind of earnest, small-L liberal, do-gooder smugness to it that gets to me sometimes. Too much Shelagh Rogers and too little Anna Maria Tremonti, as it were.

Yeah, I know what you mean. I think it's gotten better, but it's still there.

But isn't that typical of most Canadian-produced media? Even The National Post is a getting a little cutesy lately.
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[User Picture]From: ed_rex
2008-01-28 07:10 pm (UTC)

Re: The Walrus

But isn't that typical of most Canadian-produced media?

Unfortunately, I think it is. With non-fiction I prefer analysis over human-interest.

Even The National Post is a getting a little cutesy lately.

I'll have to take your word for that. I haven't read the Post in quite some time. It wasn't the bias that drove me away (though that would prevent me from being a regular reader), but the fact that I kept catching actual lies in it.
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[User Picture]From: sooguy
2008-01-27 05:03 am (UTC)
Wow, that's a lot of food for thought.

Maybe you should send it to Walrus. I know its a bit of a mouthful for a "letter to the editor", but they might appreciate it all the same.

I have read an issue or two of the WALRUS before and have always been impressed. I should subscribe someday.
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[User Picture]From: ed_rex
2008-01-27 04:23 pm (UTC)

Susbscribe! Subscribe!

Maybe you should send it to Walrus. I know its a bit of a mouthful for a "letter to the editor", but they might appreciate it all the same.

I did, in fact, post a modified version on their website, minus the LJ-specific personal stuff and most if not all of the explanatory material. It is long for a letter of comment, but who knows? It'd be a gas to have my name show up in the print edition.

And yes, you should subscribe. Ten issues for something like 25 bucks is a pretty good deal.
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[User Picture]From: jade_noir
2008-01-27 10:27 pm (UTC)
I read that and I was a bit confused as to whose opinion was whose.
So the magazine says: "Integration is bad"
And you say "Integration happens and it should not be discouraged"
yes/no?

Personally, I go with the opinion of allowing people to mix in their own way and not scorn them for wanting to live next door to people from the old country.

I live in America and well... my best friends are a Chinese girl and a Jew. Sure I probably have more racial tendencies than you do but that is because Philadelphia blacks are messed up. (messed up in this sense means oppressed for a few generations and then end up poor in the ghetto with no hope for the future, leading into them hating all white people.)
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[User Picture]From: ed_rex
2008-01-28 07:14 pm (UTC)

Uh-Oh!

I read that and I was a bit confused as to whose opinion was whose.

That's not good; I had thought I was pretty clear. I'll need to go back over it.

Sure I probably have more racial tendencies than you do but that is because Philadelphia blacks are messed up. (messed up in this sense means oppressed for a few generations and then end up poor in the ghetto with no hope for the future, leading into them hating all white people.)

That sounds to me less like bigotry than a recognition of a specific social reality. How much contact have you had with black people where you live?
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[User Picture]From: jade_noir
2008-01-29 12:28 am (UTC)

Re: Uh-Oh!

In my specific area, a lot because I used to live in the area of my town where all the blacks live. My best friends in Elementary school were black.
As soon as we got to adolescence, Jenny only wanted to hang-out with black people and sort-of white trash kids who don't do well in school. (I think that our study habits separated us.)

But with black people on the streets of Philadelphia, depending on the neighborhood I'm in, I may experience a deathly chill in my heart when crossing their paths or I may not even notice.
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[User Picture]From: ed_rex
2008-01-29 01:35 am (UTC)

Re: Uh-Oh!

...I used to live in the area of my town where all the blacks live. [Emphasis mine.]

That's the problem with black/white relations in the US in a nutshell, isn't it?

Over the past 20-odd years, Toronto has seen the growth of a number of mostly-black (and poor) neighbourhoods, along with an increase in gun-violence (though I hasten to add, we had a total of 80-some murders last year - close to a record, but still pretty low for a city of 2.5 million people. At least, for a city of 2.5 million people in North America; someone from Japan would probably beg to differ. But I digress). However, it's my impression that most of those blacks are immigrants and/or first generation Canadians, so I remain hopeful this isn't going to prove to be a permanent ghettoization.
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