Having spent most of my life in Toronto, I was always used to seeing and interacting with people of all races and cultures, and living in a city of ethnic neighbourhoods that manage to blend at the edges without too many ill effects. For instance, I used to live and work around Eglinton and Oakwood, which was a colourful, raucous intersection of Jamaican, Italian and Jewish neighbourhoods. There was an issue with street violence, but that were already starting to clear up by the time we left. By and large, everyone got along and interacted just fine, and when they didn't it was rarely because of one racial or ethnic group squaring off against another.
So it was quite the culture shock moving to Milton 15 years ago. I hadn't lived in a more homogeneously white, Christian area since I lived on tree-lined, WASP-ridden Cortleigh Boulevard as a little kid. Milton seemed to belong to the same era, preserved in its little 1970s development-moratorium bubble.
Since the 'Big Pipe' started bringing lake water and new residents eight years ago, I've watched this small town transform into an increasingly diverse, small suburban city. We now have much broader food choices, the music at our street festivals is considerably more varied, and I'm seeing more and more hijabs, turbans and tunics at my son's high school. For me, this has been a sort of normalization, but for others it's been... a bit of an adjustment.
This was made clear to me recently when I was signing up a new customer at the video store where I work. I noted the Mississauga address on his driver's license, and he mentioned that he had moved recently because it was getting "really bad there". At first I thought he was talking about the ugly subdivisions, but then he said `You know, I hate to say it, but with all these new people moving in..."
And I promptly changed the subject. Because the boss really doesn't like it when we hit the customers.
Unfortunately, he insisted on returning to the topic, complaining about all the crime in Mississauga (which continues to have the lowest crime rate of any city in Canada), and how there are hardly any "Canadians" there any more.
You have no idea how badly I wanted to punch him in the nose. Instead, I
pointed out that Milton was also seeing an increase in its immigrant population and that I considered this to be a good thing. "The place needed a little colour", I said. He shrugged and allowed as to how this might be so.
I was still fuming over this encounter when, about an hour later, a woman came in looking for Spanish language films. She taught ESL at the newcomer resource centre next door, as well as teaching Spanish at the Employment centre in the same mall, and she wanted the films for her class.
We got chatting. Turns out she was born in Mexico but moved to Milton many years ago. She originally planned to just be a 'traditional housewife', but decided to start teaching because she was constantly running into an undercurrent of anti-immigrant sentiment in town and she wanted to help both old and new Miltonians get over their ignorance and distrust of one another.
I told her a bit about my earlier encounter. This led to an even longer discussion about how racism in this country tends to use immigration issues as a cover.
As I was checking her out, I noticed a familiar last name on her account. "Oh," I said, "Your husband must be related to my former next-door neighbour". I told her the name and she said, "Of course, she was my mother-in-law!"
It turns out this lovely woman from Mexico was in fact a member of one of the founding families of Milton - a family that had lived here for well over 100 years. I immediately contrasted that with my previous customer on his flight westward in search of a place with 'real' Canadians, and thought about roots, and who was contributing more to the country and the community.
I also thought about something John Ralston Saul pointed out in "A Fair Country": that when the first waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean first came to this country, they were not only scorned - they were not even considered to be of the same race as those who had come earlier. Germans were similarly viewed, portrayed as 'Huns' and depicted as physically different from 'us'. As were the Irish years before.
We are so used to seeing racism through the American experience where it is so overwhelmingly defined as literally a black and white issue, that we almost become blind to it when it involves other groups. And because so many of our Chinese, South Asian, Latino, Caribbean, and other citizens of colour have only been here for a generation or two, the line between race and immigration issues becomes blurred.
Unfortunately, it seems to be becoming so blurred that some have started excusing racism as mere xenophobia. In this country, neither should be acceptable.