January 26th, 2008

Baby and me

The Importance of Remembering the Past

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.

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Despite my argument with its editor, The Walrus is a very good magazine and getting better. You should pick it up.