Posted on April 3, 2008

Visible Minorities the New Majority

Graeme Hamilton, National Post (Don Mills, Ontario), April 03, 2008

The made-in-Canada term “visible minority” has come under fire for various reasons, most recently by a United Nations body that last year found it racially insensitive.

A more persuasive argument for retiring the phrase comes in the latest census data released Wednesday: In a growing number of Canadian communities in Ontario and British Columbia, it is the Caucasians who are a minority.

In Markham, Ont., and Richmond, B.C., 65% of residents are so-called visible minorities. In Brampton, Ont., the figure is 57%; in Burnaby, B.C., 55%; and in Vancouver, 51%. Toronto is not far behind at 47%.

Overall, the Canadian population remains overwhelmingly white. Recent immigration has pushed the number of Canadians classified as visible minorities above five million for the first time, but that is still just 16.2% of the total population.

“This is a huge country, but immigration, especially visible-minority immigration, is extraordinarily concentrated in just a few square miles—metropolitan Vancouver, metropolitan Toronto and then much smaller pockets in the other cities,” said David Ley, a professor of geography at the University of British Columbia.

Combined, metropolitan Toronto and metropolitan Vancouver are home to 23% of the Canadian population, but 60% of all Canada’s visible minorities live in the two regions, the census shows. The Statistics Canada report on the census figures is deceptively titled “Canada’s Ethnocultural Mosaic,” which suggests a balanced pattern of different colours spreading from coast to coast.

“The 5-million is not scattered everywhere across the country. The fact that it’s heavily concentrated is what could potentially raise some issues,” Mr. Ley said.

In the context of federal legislation to prevent workplace discrimination against minorities, “visible minorities” are defined as “persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour.” Their numbers are growing rapidly—at more than five times the growth rate of the total population—largely because of immigration. Three-quarters of new arrivals to Canada between 2001-2006 belonged to a visible minority group.

The influx into urban centres has led some to question whether the arrival of foreign customs will undermine long-standing Canadian values. The insecurity has been most pronounced in Quebec, where a government commission into the “reasonable accommodation” of ethnic and religious minorities is due to report next month.

In fact, the census shows that despite its collective hand-wringing, Quebec has just the fifth-highest proportion of visible minorities among Canadian provinces. At 8.8%, it ranks behind British Columbia, Ontario, Alberta and Manitoba. Even in metropolitan Montreal, where 90% of the province’s visible minorities live, the proportion of non-whites is 16.5%, barely above the national average.

Daniel Stoffman, author of Who Gets In, a book on Canadian immigration policy, said most Torontonians have adapted to their city’s changing complexion, but visitors are taken aback. “It’s a cultural divide,” he said.” I remember when a friend of mine came to the city from northern Ontario, and I directed him to take the subway. He just couldn’t believe how many non-white people there were on the train. He’d never seen anything like that before.”

While he thinks most immigrants eventually adopt Canadian values, he worries that current levels—Canada admits about 250,000 immigrants a year—could create ethnic enclaves if well-paying jobs are not available. In his book he wrote about school teachers in Richmond, B.C. confronted with Canadian-born children of immigrants who were starting school unable to speak English.

“If everybody in the area is speaking the same language, then the kids have absolutely no incentive to learn any other language, and they’re not learning it very well in the school either, because all the other kids are speaking the same language.”

Daniel Weinstock, a professor of political philosophy at Université de Montréal, says that so far Canada has done a commendable job integrating immigrants.

“Of course it changes the nature of social relations, it changes the nature of the society, it raises challenges, but by and large, comparing Canada with most other countries that are high-immigration countries, it has been doing so fairly successfully,” he said.

What concerns him is evidence that recent immigrants are facing a harder time getting up to speed economically. “The happy middle-class Jewish enclaves that I knew as a youth, where people would get in their cars in the morning, go downtown to work and come home at the end of the day is one thing,” he said. “Angry unemployed people who are concentrated together and get to spend the day together not working and feeding each other’s, very often justified, resentment, is quite another. . . I think that we really have to, as a society, take a long hard look at why it is that in the context of one of the healthiest most robust economic periods in this country’s history, what used to be true of immigrants, that they hit the ground running economically, is no longer true.”

Mr. Ley said managing the integration of immigrants is a challenge facing developed countries around the world, and he thinks Canada is headed in the right direction. “We’ve chosen not to go the French way, which is a very strong position that you come here and you be like us. A more multicultural view is that there’s give and take and there’s an evolution of a national society. That is the choice that Canada has made.” And in important pockets of the country, the visible minorities will inevitably become a majority. “I think we’ll be looking for a new term soon,” he said.

When Jagdev Hansra and his wife Preetinder moved to Brampton from Punjab last July, they were unsure of what to expect. They had heard how difficult life was in Canada, about the cold weather and about the pitfalls of being so far from home.

Except that in Brampton, it looked a lot like home.

Instead of being part of a minority, they are part of what is a growing visible “majority” in some GTA suburbs. In the past five years, Brampton has seen the greatest change, with the percentage of visible minorities increasing from 40 to 57—most being South Asians.

“It made it easier for us to settle,” said Preetinder, who works in an auto-parts factory that employs mostly Punjabis.

For the first time, the combined total of those from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka outnumbered the Chinese. There were 1.26 million South Asians, followed by 1.21 million Chinese and 784,000 blacks across the country.

In Toronto, nearly half of the population, at 46.9 per cent, were a visible minority. Markham topped the list of communities in the GTA with just over 65 per cent visible minorities.

South Asians are often looking for a way out of political instability, said immigration consultant Ali Naqvi. But he said many come because they want to give their children a better life.

“Everyone struggles,” he said. “That is part of the settlement process for newcomers. The hope is that the sacrifice translates into success.”

That’s what the Hansras are counting on as they settle in their new homeland.

“You think you will find a job, make a lot of money, but it’s not so simple,” said Preetinder, 27.

Her job of sorting through the nuts and bolts at the auto parts factory is hard on her eyes. “I never imagined things would be so difficult here,” she said.

Jagdev, 26, who recently got his trucking licence, is more optimistic. “At least you can get a job here. In India you can’t.”

Naqvi, who immigrated to Canada as student 20 years ago, is attuned to the struggles of immigrants. Three years after his family came to Toronto, his father went bankrupt. But his siblings managed to persevere, with three of them becoming lawyers. His younger brother Yasir was elected as the MPP for Ottawa Centre.

But he knows that this is not a common success story.

“While South Asians are the majority in terms of numbers, in terms of influence they are not,” he said.

Ratna Omidvar, executive director of Maytree Foundation, which funds many immigrant and refugee programs, also sees discrepancies in the reflection of visible minorities in positions of influence.

“Public institutions are a mirror of the society. They reflect the power structure of the society and you see the faces represented in power and privileges,” Omidvar said.

Research done by the foundation has shown that only 1 to 2 per cent of corporate Canada is made up of visible minorities, she said.

“They’ve made strides in promoting visible minorities in mid-management, but there is still a glass ceiling at the top level where visible minority faces are absent,” she said.

The same is true in the various levels of government. In city council, four of 44 councillors are visible minorities, and in Queen’s Park, it’s just 11 of 107.

Lack of opportunity is behind the downtrend in Chinese immigrants, according to Naqvi.

“Chinese applicants are having second thoughts about Canada,” he said. He attributes the slowdown to the economic boom in China, which is retaining young professionals, and to the negative reputation that Canada has gained abroad for its unwillingness to recognize foreign credentials.

Ontario Immigration Minister Michael Chan, the only MPP of Chinese descent in the legislature, is determined to change this.

He said Queen’s Park will soon be launching a joint partnership with community groups to address the issue.

On a grassroots level, the Maytree Foundation has launched a similar program called the “abcGTA program” to pre-screen visible minority candidates to sit on boards of the voluntary and government sectors, such as the LCBO, tribunals and provincial bodies. To date, 150 people have been chosen.

But Navdeep Bains, MP for Mississauga-Brampton South and one of the 10 South Asians in the House of Commons, believes that diversity should not be limited to the colour of one’s skin.

“You want to have representation reflected in your institutions that ultimately reflects your diversity,” he said.

“But I think diversity goes well beyond just the typical definition of just looking different. I think it has to do with being open to ideas and concerns of others.”