Canada could be vision of future, happy to be defined by its diversity

Par Ruadhán Mac Cormaic

Canada-Québec - sortir ou rester ? <br>Il faudra bien se décider un jour...

The summer afternoon traffic shoots north along Yonge Street, the bolt-straight avenue that cuts Toronto into east and west, and at Dundas Square streams of suits and shoppers ascend from the subway and fan out in a multilingual sweep.
A large crowd stands by the Eaton shopping centre, where amid the bustle a wizened Chinese man sits with his chess set, a stool and an upturned cap. An Arab girl is taking him on, and the group - ethnic Chinese, Indians, Filipinos, Caribbeans - watches rapt. A teenager among them yells into her phone in an Anglo-Portuguese hybrid that doesn't earn her a glance. A black woman saunters past, her Bible aloft, her supplications loud. No one pays her any heed.
In Toronto, the world's most cosmopolitan city, difference is the tie that binds. Of the city's 2.5 million residents, almost half (49 per cent) were born outside Canada, and the street maps tell of how newcomers have drawn the patterns that define the modern city; within a mile of Dundas Square there are four Chinatowns, a Little Italy, Greektown, an Indian neighbourhood, the old Irish district and dozens of other areas demarcated by their ethnic roots.
More than 100 languages are spoken in the city and at least 90 religious groups congregate here.
In a country that prides itself on being hospitable, Toronto is Canada's poster boy. Of more than 250,000 immigrants who will be admitted to Canada this year, half will come to its biggest city.
"I think what the world is going to look like in 25, 50 years is what Toronto is crafting now and slowly inching towards," says Jehad Aliweiwi, a Palestinian-born community worker who arrived in Canada 20 years ago.
There is nothing accidental about Canada's modern ethno-cultural mosaic. Though it falls short of its own target to admit 1 per cent (310,000) of its population in immigrants each year, Canada's rate of intake still makes it more open than anywhere else.
Aside from asylum seekers and dependants, it selects those who are deemed most likely to fit in, by requiring that they be highly educated and speak English or French. And as the profile of its immigrants changes, so do their countries of origin. The Chinese are the biggest contingent, followed by Indians, Filipinos and Pakistanis.
From its birth as a self-governing nation in 1867 Canada was a multicultural mixture of British and French settlers and aboriginals. That much was officially recognised in 1971, when Pierre Trudeau, a liberal prime minister, declared Canada bilingual and multicultural. The Canadian Multiculturalism Act, adopted in 1988, made Canada the first country in the world to pass a national law of its kind.
But the Canadian understanding of multiculturalism is far from the "live and let live" approach preferred in some European countries. Diversity is not tolerated but encouraged, and this is reflected everywhere, from broadcasting to education policy.
The children of immigrants are given tuition in their parents' mother tongue, for example, and the city of Toronto translates all official documents into 12 languages.
The system recognises diversity but also affirms a set of core values. There is a Department of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism as well as one of Citizenship and Immigration, and these bodies fund organisations helping immigrants in all aspects of their integration, from reception to interpretation and job searching. A language instruction programme in English or French is available to all adult immigrants and legislation makes clear that values such as gender rights cannot be overridden in the name of cultural diversity.
With a rapidly ageing native-born population, Canada badly needs immigrants - by 2011, 100 per cent of net labour market growth will come from immigration. But unlike in Ireland, the official rationale is couched in broader terms than labour market imperatives. Multiculturalism itself has become a core Canadian value.
The broad concurrence among political parties that mass immigration is of benefit reflects a popular consent that has held steady for decades. Last year the Dominion Institute, a Toronto-based think-tank, did a survey asking people what they saw as Canada's defining characteristic.
"I think if you had asked that question 40 years ago people might have said 'the country's natural beauty, the majesty of our landscape'," says Rudyard Griffiths, its director. "If you had asked that question 80 years ago, they would have said 'Canada's connection with Great Britain'. You ask that question, as we did, in 2006, and Canadians say 'diversity'.
"In other words, we've made a mental shift to think about diversity as the hallmark of Canadian society."
Griffiths suggests that Canada, at a time when its connection (in the English-speaking parts, at least) to Europe is continuing to decline and the United States has powered beyond everyone else militarily, has sought something to mark itself off from other countries, and has managed to do this by positioning itself as the "immigration superpower".
In Thorncliffe Park, a poor neighbourhood of about 35,000 people in densely-populated central east Toronto, most of the faces on the streets are south Asian. First built to house returning soldiers from the second World War, the area's high-rise rented flats are now home to one of the most concentrated Muslim communities in Canada, most coming from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The local elementary school, with more than 2,000 pupils, is the largest in the country.
The neighbourhood offers none of the stereotypical markers (graffiti, dirt, on-street menace) of the urban ghetto in decay. The land is flat and awash with concrete, but softened by the mature trees that line the main roads. The place is well served by 24-hour buses, a large shopping centre, a church and a mosque, and the crime rate is at the city average.
Aliweiwi, director of the Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office, says the area - reflective of the country's success in resisting serious racial tension - is a success story that could be a prototype for the future city. "It's becoming more of a hallmark of what the city is going to look like. Census Canada reported last year that by 2017 the largest source of immigration to Canada will be the Asian sub-continent. So we say, today's Thorncliffe is tomorrow's Canada."
For all the successes in places like Thorncliffe Park, however, there are serious - sometimes systemic - problems that suggest Canada and its immigrants aren't getting the best from each other.
The country's recent immigrants, unlike previous generations, are predominantly urban, educated and fluent in more than one language. But there is evidence that it is taking them longer than ever to catch up with their native-born neighbours; they tend to earn less than similarly-educated Canadians and it is taking them longer than previous generations to buy their own homes.
Immigrants who came to Canada in the 1980s had poverty rates that were roughly equivalent to the native-born population. Among those who came in the 1990s and 2000s the rate is more than double the Canadian-born average.
New arrivals also face obstacles to finding jobs commensurate with their education and experience, according to Elizabeth McIsaac, executive director of the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council. One survey found that after one year in the country, only four out of ten skilled immigrants were finding work in their field.
"It's a big problem in itself, and I think employment is probably the single most important indicator of settlement and integration," says McIsaac. "There is definitely a labour market failure or a disconnect that's happening here."
While public attitudes to minorities are unquestionably warm, it is also clear that only limited progress has been made in opening the political system to their representatives. While federal institutions seem relatively accessible - Italians and Punjabis have been especially well represented in government - the lower down the hierarchy of power, the fewer immigrants there are.
Of 44 councillors in the city of Toronto only three belong to an ethnic minority. Provincial power is spread almost as unevenly.
"As an immigrant and an activist," says Uzma Shakir, director of CASSA, a support group for Asian immigrants, "my problem is that because Canada has become so synonymous with multiculturalism and openness, that we have actually forgotten to do the things that make us that."
Griffiths, an advocate of high immigration, also thinks Canada is in danger of believing its own press. "And there's some troubling signs out there that this model - high immigration, high diversity - is starting to show some strains," he says.
"We're not understanding that there's a commensurate expense to high levels of immigration. And also commensurate responsibility to these new immigrants, these new citizens, to provide them with a fair start.
"It wouldn't surprise me if some of these groups start to feel frustrated by what Canada isn't offering them, by the discrepancy between the potential of the country, the degree to which we are in an economic boom and they're not participating in it."
Since the attacks of 9/11, multiculturalism has received more attention than usual in Canada. In a recent book, the writer and columnist George Jonas - himself an immigrant from Hungary - argued that multiculturalism was an intellectual fashion that had run its course and must now be abandoned, having failed to serve the country's interests.
But there has been little post-9/11 fallout in Canada, and Griffiths believes this has reaffirmed the public perception, shown consistently by opinion surveys, that the multicultural model is still working. "Whether that's myth or reality, it's still the dominant way that we're thinking about immigration in a post-9/11 world," he says.
Shakir has dual Pakistani-Canadian nationality and most of her family still live in the home country, but if she had to choose between her passports, she'd keep the Canadian one. She thinks Canada's multicultural experiment has been a success, but also cautions against exaggerated optimism.
"At the level of rhetoric and at the level of emotion and psychology, we are very good at it. Everybody has bought into it. It's part of our psyche. But it's not good enough to be multicultural. We have to be equitable and just too."
Douglas Gageby Fellowship/Migration and the reinvention of Ireland: Canada aims to be an 'immigration superpower' but its positive rhetoric is not always matched by social progress, Ruadhán Mac Cormaic reports from Toronto in his continuing series Migration and the reinvention of Ireland

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