Are ethnic enclaves a good or bad thing for Canadian cities? Should immigrants assimilate and disperse into mainstream English- and French-speaking communities or cluster together in their own ethnic enclaves? I am most familiar with South Asian settlement in British Columbia, especially the emergence of vibrant Punjabi Market districts in Vancouver and Surrey. Vancouver has a population of approximately 600,000, of which 49 percent have a mother tongue of English and about three percent have a mother tongue of Punjabi. Mother tongue is simply defined as your first language learned and still understood. Surrey has a population approaching 500,000, of which 56 percent have a mother tongue of English and a significant 19 percent have a mother tongue of Punjabi.
When Punjabi Sikh settlers first came to British Columbia in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it could be argued that ethnic enclaves were a necessity. Many Sikh immigrants faced severe racial discrimination due to the local population being concerned that the Sikh immigrants would work for less and take their jobs. The Sikhs were different with their turbans and traditional customs. The Sikhs gathered and lived together for support, to afford a place to live, and to earn a living. The early Chinese and Japanese settlers faced considerable discrimination as well. It is not surprising, therefore, that the historical foundation was laid for the eventual realization of ethnic enclaves like Chinatown and Punjabi Market. These ethnic enclaves were essentially in response to difficulties in integration.
Ethnic enclaves are not the same as ethnic ghettos, which are common in the U.S. especially among some impoverished African American communities in major American cities. Canada has a much stronger social safety net, an official multiculturalism policy, and a much more healthy approach to immigration than the U.S. Nonetheless, the large impoverished and somewhat neglected aboriginal population in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver is perhaps the closest thing to an ethnic ghetto in Canada. It is important to note, however, that the history, settlement patterns, public safety issues, government response, and approach to poverty and social problems in the Downtown Eastside is probably very different than the American experience.
The Punjabi ethnic enclaves in Vancouver and Surrey are actually thriving middle-class communities and commercial districts. Most members of the community are property owners and their children are becoming professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers and contributing to Canada. This does not mean there are not problems in the community such as organized crime, gender selection, and lack of integration and language problems. In fact, you can go to some popular fast food restaurants in Surrey and the person at the front counter cannot even speak fluent English.
Nonetheless, there are many benefits to ethnic enclaves. They provide a focal point for the community. They are a gathering place for people of similar origins and provide an efficient way to provide culturally sensitive public services such as English language, settlement, translation, and employment training services. Ethnic enclaves add colour to cities. The Punjabi Market in Vancouver and Surrey are fast becoming a tourist draw and shopping mecca for high quality silks, suits, saris, sweets, spices, delicious authentic curry dishes, ornate gold jewellery, and of course Bollywood films. The Punjabi and Hindi films showcased at the Strawberry Hill cinema in Surrey are often packed with local South Asian residents and even other members of the community. Furthermore, the evolution of an ethnic enclave is in keeping with freedom of mobility rights and is democratic.
Many Canadians, however, argue that it is not healthy to form ethnic enclaves where people of similar interests, religions, customs, language, and culture gather together. They say it will lead to the balkanization of Canada, as there is a point of no return when some ethnic enclaves grow and grow so large. We have seen the racial and religious riots that engulfed Paris recently by the largely Muslim population who were starting to feel alienated and neglected by the French government. Is there really a breaking point? Should Canadians be concerned about what is happening to their cities and communities? Will ethnic enclaves eventually lead to alienation, decreasing property values, social division, unrest, lack of integration by immigrants, and racial riots? What can be done to prevent this from happening?
A major problem with ethnic enclaves is the segregation within the school system that develops. There are some schools in Surrey, for instance, that are largely South Asian. This can lead to reverse discrimination if steps are not taken to increase education, awareness, and information on diversity issues. Perhaps curriculum changes, student exchanges, sports competitions, and inter-district and regional extra-curricular activities including online learning to connect Canadians from across the country is one solution.
It is estimated that Canada has 1.3 million South Asians. However, South Asians have one of the lowest levels of interracial marriages—2.27 percent with white partners, compared to 23.77 percent for Japanese people. Are multiculturalism and ethnic enclaves the death of Canada? I agree it is important for Canada to support a common official language policy in English and French to bind the country and provide unity. Canada needs more of a national identity and some sort of glue to keep us together.
In conclusion, I have come to the realization there are pros and cons with multiculturalism and ethnic enclaves. Anything in its extremes can be dangerous. Ethnic enclaves and multiculturalism may be a boon to develop international trading relationships and opportunities with immigrant home countries, especially in our increasingly interdependent world. It is necessary, however, for Canada and Canadians to take steps to encourage intercultural understanding and provide opportunities for people of different cultures to learn from each other. This can be accomplished through the various institutions of government such as implementing intercultural education in the school system and increasing funding to ESL, settlement, and citizenship courses. New immigrants must make efforts to learn about Canadian history including aboriginal history and learn to adapt to the customs and traditions of the Canadian people.
I do not want to see a balkanized Canada develop. Too much segregation may just lead to racism and discrimination. I am grateful to be an immigrant to Canada. I am grateful for the rights, protections, freedoms, and opportunities provided to me in this great country. I do not want to see Canada change drastically as it tries to accommodate every demand of every cultural group imposing their will on the Canadian demographic. There is a collective responsibility of all immigrants to learn and live in peace in their new homeland and respect Canadians who have worked so hard to develop Canada into one of the most envied and most successful countries in the world.
Alex Sangha is a registered social worker in British Columbia. He is the author of the social discussion book The Modern Thinker and one of the winners of the Top 25 Canadian Immigrants Awards of 2011.