Alex Sangha: What to do about ethnic enclaves in Canada?

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      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.




      May 8, 2012 at 4:10pm

      The simple reality is that adjacent ethnic "enclaves" are no different than adjacent nation states. At best, they are uncomfortable neighbours; at worse, they become warring neighbours.

      This is especially true when the enclaves are separated not just by relatively benign differences (like cuisine or language), but also by highly emotional differences (like religion and cultural beliefs).

      Although I strongly believe that everyone in Canada has a fundamental right to maintain a cultural identity, I think we are in deep trouble if we continue to foster an environment where cultures are distinctly separated.

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      May 8, 2012 at 6:01pm

      It's time to admit that the forty year experiments with PET's two fuddle-duddles--mass immigration and multiculturalism--have been a complete failure. Let's cut immigration down to a sane level, and have the ROC impose Bill 101-type legislation. Notwithstanding the Charter people who chose to call Canada home should integrate into our norms, language use, and society.

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      May 8, 2012 at 6:58pm

      You highlight mostly one ethnic group.

      The "enclave" shown is mostly a business district most of that ethnic group live in a different city.

      Comparing the US to BC or Canada is an Apple to Oranges review.

      Perhaps you can include the major ethnic groups both in Canada and BC, Asian not South Asian.

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      May 8, 2012 at 8:17pm

      What about the white "enclaves" of North and West Vancouver? No concern about those?

      This article simply reinstates a stereotypical, hegemonic view of the South Asian community and immigrant communities at large. Yes, immigrant communities do tend to cluster geographically however why is complete assimilation a necessity? Why would a person give up their cultural heritage (and the cultural tools that come along with it) in order to attempt to completely assume an identity of a foreign culture?

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      R U Kiddingme

      May 8, 2012 at 11:31pm


      If by assimilation you mean that I think your children should be able to speak the official languages fluently, be mobile and conversant with the majority culture in which they live, share the aspirations and opportunities afforded by the country in which they live, have friendships with people of different skin colours, and largely downplay the nationalistic prejudices of dead people in a different country far away, then, yes, I am all for assimilation.

      It's not like they are ever going to be able to be white even if they wanted to be. It is ridiculous for parents to fear this. A moment's consideration would reveal that fear to be utterly specious. It is as obvious as the skin on their face. People are always going to ask them what they think of curry or if they live in a 96 bedroom house. They will never not have a brown identity as long as they are brown.

      However, if they are allowed to assimilate as is natural, obvious and expected, then they have a chance of being MORE than a brown identity.

      I speak from experience, and in this kindly and helpful way, as a parent

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      44 Magnum

      May 8, 2012 at 11:50pm

      "What about the white "enclaves" of North and West Vancouver? No concern about those?"

      Well, actually no. Maybe it's because when you take a stroll through those white enclaves you don't feel like a stranger in your own country, idiot.

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      May 9, 2012 at 4:27am

      Magnum, you just proved the point of the story. This is not a white country, has never been and never will be. Some of us Canadians feel like strangers in our own country when we stroll through a white enclave. And besides, this country was stolen from Canada's first peoples. All of us who are not of those peoples, regardless of how we arrived in Canada (by birth or by immigration) are complicit in that theft and that is the first wrong we collectively need to address.

      Most Canadians don't fear or hate, and most are working towards the day when we all feel comfortable taking a stroll through any ethnic/linguistic enclave. Come join us!

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      E Hunter

      May 9, 2012 at 7:56am

      The north shore has a high population of Iranians as well as Koreans and Philipinos so where does Harjit get the 'white enclave' idea? white people are not allowed to have their own neighbourhoods we are called racists if we do We should all mix together it makes for an interesting life

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      teth adam

      May 9, 2012 at 9:05am


      "Why would a person give up their cultural heritage (and the cultural tools that come along with it) in order to attempt to completely assume an identity of a foreign culture?"

      ummm, because said person immigrated to a host country. you calling canada a "foreign culture" speaks volumes.

      canada is a nation, not a hotel.

      if large numbers of a specific ethnic group cluster together while making little to no effort to integrate to their host country's primary language and culture are not immigrants, they are colonists.

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      May 9, 2012 at 12:14pm

      "White enclaves" do exist in areas that are not particularly affluent (e.g. West Vancouver). They exist in Surrey, where "west Newton" is primarily populated by South Asians; and "east Newton", which is still predominantly "white". That's why the huge, annual Visaskhi parade is held west of King George Boulevard.

      The looming problem is that the South Asian population has run out of room for growth in the west side of the city, and many non-Asians are concerned about what that will mean on the east side.

      This is not a racist "there goes the neighbourhood!" reaction. For most, it's a legitimate concern that their own cultures and identities will be overwhelmed, as they have been in the western part of the city. West Newton no longer resembles a place in Canada.

      We have already arrived at the point (which I mentioned earlier) where we have "warring nations" separated by a "border" called King George Boulevard.

      We can all afford to "give a little" on this issue. But nobody should be expected to give up everything, and that's where we're at. I happen to enjoy many South Asian cultural traditions, but I don't want to give up all of my traditions in order to accommodate theirs.

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