Sorry, politicos, our diversity’s one thing you can’t take credit for

TheGlobeandMail.com – National – No one actually asked Toronto if it wanted to become an experiment in mass urban immigration. More likely, it just happened
Published on Friday, Mar. 12, 2010.  Last updated on Saturday, Mar. 13, 2010.   Marcus Gee

The Toronto I grew up in the 1960s was as white as Wonder Bread. In my North Toronto high school of about 500 kids, there was precisely one non-white student, a Chinese guy whose parents ran a laundry service on Yonge Street. How things have changed.

In little more than a generation, the complexion of Toronto has been altered beyond recognition. It is a breathtaking transformation, so rapid and so profound that the whole world beats a path to our door to study us.

Yet Torontonians themselves find the whole topic a little ho-hum. When Statistics Canada reported this week that the city and its suburbs would have a non-white majority by 2017, its citizens reacted with a collective shrug.

No demagogue mounted the podium to decry the end of white Toronto. No politician threatened to run in this year’s election on an anti-immigration platform.

The changing face of Toronto is simply a non-issue, accepted by most as natural, inevitable and, for the most part, desirable. It is de rigueur for political leaders, both left and right, to speak of Toronto’s diversity as point of pride and even a competitive advantage in a time of economic globalization.

A 2008 poll showed that in big Canadian cities like this one, 65 per cent of residents agreed that taking immigrants from diverse backgrounds was an enriching and defining part of our Canadian identity – not just okay, mind, but enriching and defining. The proportion of Canadians under 35 who felt positively was even higher – 75 per cent – which suggests that comfort with immigration and diversity will only grow over time.

That level of acceptance is as astonishing as the change itself, especially when you contrast it with the traumatic experience of cities like Paris, with its teeming, bitter banlieues.

Remember that Toronto, historically, was not a melting pot like New York or Chicago. Though immigrants came to Toronto – Catholics from Ireland, Jews from Europe – the great waves of immigrants washed up in rural Canada to meet a demand for agricultural labour. Toronto remained a stolid Protestant backwater.

Only after the Second World War did Toronto start getting waves of immigrants – Greeks, Italians, Portuguese – that changed the flavour of the city. And only in the 1980s, when immigrants from Asia and other parts of the world began to exceed those from Europe, did it get the waves of non-white immigration that continue to this day. According to this week’s Stats Can survey, the number of South Asians living in greater Toronto could reach an incredible 2.1 million by 2031.

All of this unfolded with remarkably little tension or angst – some bad blood between blacks and police in the 1980s, a teapot tempest over Chinese signs in Asian malls in the 1990s; trivial matters in the scheme of things,

How did we do it? It’s complicated. It would be pleasing to think Toronto is more tolerant than other cities, or that Ottawa’s multiculturalism policy and Toronto’s programs to promote diversity were decisive. But the public’s hostility to ideas such as sharia law for Muslims and the expansion of publicly funded religious schooling suggest that Torontonians don’t think they should have to bend over backward to accommodate the cultural differences of immigrants. Their message to newcomers is: Come, but adapt.

No one actually asked Toronto if it wanted to become an experiment in mass urban immigration. There was never a true national debate about raising Canada’s immigrant intake to the highest in the world. Ottawa simply opened the floodgates and they came

If Toronto is the accidental city, as Robert Fulford titled his book on Toronto, then ours is the accidental diversity. While we were looking the other way, this dour little burg turned into one of the world’s great people magnets, and most of us are just fine with that.

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