Saturday, May 23, 2009

Musings on Multiculturalism: A Tale of Two Customers

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.


  1. The era of multiculturalism is no longer an urban thing. In many of the new subdivisions, either well-off immigrants are moving in or the adult children of immigrants are moving from Toronto to the suburbs. This is something your customer will need to deal with.

  2. I don't know if this can be tied with a certain group of people protesting in Toronto. Do people see them as Tamils, Canadian-Tamils, Tamil-Canadians, Canadians, or something else?

  3. - a family that had lived here for well over 100 years.This is similar to what my partner and I experience far too often from ill-informed fellow Canadians. She is of African-Nova Scotian decent and can trace her Canadian roots (on both sides of her family!) back something like 8 generations to the New York evacuations of 1783 that brought 30,000 Loyalists to the Maritimes. But of course she gets all the time, "But, where are you really from?" I on the other hand am only 2nd generation Canadian paternally and 3rd generation maternally, but my people came from the United Kingdom so naturally my pasty hue is never questioned in regards to its Canadian heritage. It is frustrating and sad to continually have to enlighten the unenlightened. Especially when they more times than not still don't get it.

  4. Excellent, excellent post. Eventually, the whitebread suburbanites will be assimilated into the multicultural mosiac, hell I was raised as one. It just didn't take.

  5. Ahh, the joys of "the customer always being right"
    You and I should be so fortunate to encounter these cretins even more often than we do! Seems like I have a similar sort of encounter once every two weeks and I, too, struggled with keeping my mouth shut. I did enjoy your "needed a bit more colour" comment - well said!
    Alas, there will always be those obnoxious morons frightened of change but it's hopeful to see women like the one you mentioned who strive for better - to enlighten those who are less..educated in matters of the heart. This incident is quite similar to the numerous occasions where I've had to keep my mouth shut when a customer has made anti-gay slurs or comments regarding films like MILK and ohh, what fun they are to deal with! Seriously, I really think people like that need to grow up and just.. blow away :)

  6. Terrific post! I still have bad memories of the late 1970s when the police had to be called when my neighbours called my parents and me "d.p.'s" (displaced persons) and my father nearly punched the lights out of the neighbours.

    My father, technically, is a refugee, a legitimate one, but he got his landing papers very quickly and took out his Canadian citizenship as soon as he qualified (in those days, it was five years).

    It was odd, because even after we moved away to another neighbourhood he kept telling me it was two different worlds he lived in. One was the factory, which had all ethnic groups and races and everyone got along just famously. As soon as they got back to their neighbourhoods, the old world prejudices and wars would keep coming up.

    It's far less of an occurence for me personally, but I still get people ask my nationality. I correctly say "Canadian, born and bred." They say, "Yeah, yeah, but what's your 'nationality' (i.e. ethnic origin) or where are you from?"

    When I say my parents are from Croatia, they then get started on how all Croatians collaborated with the Nazis during WWII (which is untrue, many did but many others were in the resistance) and ask me if I'm "one of them." Like somehow I'm a member of a Catholic version of the Klan.

    I have friends from many ethicities, many races, many origins. What's on the outside doesn't matter to me, as long as they're using the brain they have inside.

    The part of Hamilton I live in is quite diverse and most everyone gets along, fortunately; but there are parts that are still simply no-goes for those who aren't considered "white enough."

    The further from downtown, the higher the percentage of bigotry (in general); and this includes the well-established ethnic communities as well where it's everyone for themselves.

    Sometimes I wonder what ever happened to Rodney King's plea, "Can't we all get along?" It's the diverse neighbourhoods I want to live in, not those lilly-white islands of ignorance.

  7. Great post! I've sent this to a few of my friends who I think could benefit from this.

  8. The rev. paperboy said,

    "[T]he whitebread suburbanites will be assimilated into the multicultural mosiac."Isn't being assimilated into the multicultual mosaic an oxymoron? Welcome to the Borg collective. Resistance is futile.

  9. If the immigrants moving to your neighbourhood has created a greater sense of community, more cohesiveness, and a better mesh of life, so much the better. That hasn't been my personal experience with watching Brampton being changed from a city comprised of multigenerational Europeans to one predominantly IndoCanadian. The change has not been for the better, since the dominant demographic has only changed faces. It becomes ethnocentric and exclusive to that culture.

    Your video store customer sounds a lot like me. I know where he's coming from.

  10. sjw -

    As a genealogist, one thing I've always found particularly telling is the fact that U.S. census forms have always asked for "race", which was usually represented by a single letter: W, B, M (Mulatto), I (Indian), O (Oriental), etc. In other words, you were defined by the colour of your skin.

    By contrast, Canadian census forms asked for "ethnic origin" instead, which could be whatever the person being questioned said it was. My grandmother's family - descended from the first Walloon settlers in New Amsterdam - would list Dutch, French, English, Irish, German... just about anything. The answer was rarely completely accurate, but just by asking the question the government was acknowledging the complexity of Canada's unique situation.

    Imagine - in the U.S., it wouldn't matter if you were descended from black Loyalists, escaped slaves, upstate New Yorkers, Haitian or Jamaican immigrants or Ethiopian refugees - you'd just be "black".

  11. I still wonder what exactly do "ethnic" Canadians think when they see a non-white skin. I have had a couple of really unpleasant experiences in Toronto and Milton because of my brown skin.

    Hope this attitude of non-white skin = less of Canadian goes away.

    Raphael, I know what you mean about Brampton turning into an IndoCanadian enclave. But there are large areas of Brampton that are still predominantly white - City centre, West and North Brampton come to mind.

    But considering that immigration is going to continue for the foreseeable future, you have to get used to the idea of seeing Canadian demography turning into a rainbow, else you are just deluding yourself if you think you can run away from us non-whites.

  12. But that's just the point, Desi. If it were turning into a "rainbow" that would be one thing. The fact is that usually immigration just supplants one dominant ethnic group with a new one.

    How is that better?

  13. Raph -

    When has immigration in Canada EVER supplanted one dominant ethnic group with a new one across the country, or even across a single province? In individual towns and neighbourhoods, sure, but that happens everywhere. Ever been to New York? North Dakota? Miami? Gimli? So what? Would you say that Irish culture 'supplanting' the British in Boston was a bad thing? Or that the Jewish neighbourhoods in Montreal have done anything but add to the culture there?

    Frankly, I'm still waiting to hear how this current wave of immigrants is in any way different from every other previous wave, except perhaps for the colour of their skin.

    Here in Milton, the only language issues I've ever had with our customers has been with members of our large deaf community (there's a school for the deaf here), and that's easily solved with pen and paper. Everyone else, including my south Asian boss, speaks perfectly understandable English. And the only thing supplanting the local culture here in Milton is the Wal-Mart and the accompanying ring of Big Box stores that's killing downtown.

    Hey - maybe the problem is just you?

  14. It might be just me. But when your neighbourhood becomes exclusively one kind of immigrant, turning you into the de facto minority who doesn't fit in, speak the language, or share any common cultural traits whatsoever, it's human nature to seek out a place to live that suits you.

    If I wanted to live in India, I would have moved there.

  15. Raphael, Of course, there will always be pockets of areas where you will find the visible minority has the upper hand (case in point, Brampton and Markham) but what I read from your comments is that because you do not see your skin colour having the upper hand in those areas, multiculturalism has failed. And that is some I do not agree with. I mean, just waddle over to Mississauga and you will see different races mixing and living the suburban life that everyone loves to hate.

    No matter how many waves of immigrants show up in Canada, they will all be assimilated. It has happened before (Irish, Greek, Italians) and will happen again.

    In the meantime, enjoy some chicken tikkas at Ray Lawson and Hwy 10. They are really good!!