Maytree Opinion, December 2011
By Ratna Omidvar
We recently returned from a trip to Germany where we visited four German cities to share some of Toronto’s best ideas in immigrant integration, and to bring back some new ideas from Stuttgart, Hamburg, Berlin and Cologne.
While Canada and Germany are very different countries, cities in both countries exercise a powerful attraction for immigrants who are moving across borders, time zones, and regions to large urban centers. In Toronto, close to half of our population are immigrants, in German cities such as Stuttgart that number stands at 40%. In Toronto, we are fond of saying: if immigrants succeed, then so does Toronto. We’ve seen that is true for German cities too.
When integration is done well, it fuels economic growth, spurs innovation and prosperity and leads to socially cohesive societies. When it is done poorly or ignored, it results in exclusion, poverty and segregation with lasting effects.
We are fortunate. The City of Toronto is seen around the world as a model for immigrant integration.
And we’ve got plenty of practical examples of how this is true:
- In our public libraries you borrow books in other languages and learn English;
- In our schools, you can drop off your kids and then get settlement advice;
- In our local colleges and universities, it is very apparent who is going to be the next generation of engineers, doctors, scientists and teachers; and
- We see more and more inter-ethnic marriages – up by 33% since 2001. With diversity, it seems, romance is in the air. The parents may or may not approve, but the young kids don’t seem to care.
You know this already, but it bears a reminder: Toronto’s defining feature is its diversity. It is why people come here; it is why other countries want us to tell them about our experiences. We must remember that to the over 50% of Torontonians who weren’t born here, Toronto offers a relationship built on two words: hopes and dreams.
But it’s not all romance. Dark clouds have formed over us. Inequality is growing in Canada. In Toronto, those at the bottom are more likely to be minorities, many of them recent immigrants. While the recent recession took a toll on all of us, it had a particular deep impact on recent immigrants, with their unemployment rates being twice that of others. The narrative of doctors driving cabs and engineers delivering pizzas is not just local mythology, it is quite real. We have too many in the immigrant community working in precarious jobs in the service sector, part-time, or seasonal. They often hold down more than one job.
Add to this the lack of affordable housing and you have a city which succeeds only in driving people out to the suburbs, where there is little or no public transportation. Their disconnect with our city becomes more and more real. Their settlement, hindered further.
You get a hint of a perfect storm in the form and shape of high ethnic concentrations in certain parts of our city. We’ve always had our “Little Italy” and “Greek Town.” But something feels different today; and, not only in the scale and size of newer immigrant-dominated settlements. They’re isolated in our cities. There’s a hold the “old country”, including older, even antiquated, values have on people’s hearts and minds. It enables them to live and work in Toronto but exist emotionally in another place altogether. This isn’t the nation-building we have in mind.
In this context, we must give new legs to the hopes and dreams of those who come to Toronto. We need to look for new instruments for new times. We must create the city that better welcomes our newcomers. We must build the relationships in our city that allow us all to achieve our hopes and dreams.
Thankfully, we don’t have to look far for inspiration.
One of the most powerful instruments for integration and cohesion is also one of the most overlooked: sports. When kids play together, when their parents stand side by side with other parents and cheer them on the side lines, you create social glue. When I first came to Canada, my daughter was a member of a gymnastics club and parents spent our weekends driving the girls to smallish towns like Lindsay and Paris. As my daughter became more adept with ribbons and jumps, I learned some of the written and unwritten rules of engagement through other parents. That was the most practical settlement experience I had – and no one paid for it. The relationships I made were real, and had a true impact on my integration. I think we have a greater chance of building a nation in hockey rinks and on cricket fields instead of in lonely ESL classrooms.
It’s time for Toronto institutions to actively move from passively paying lip service to diversity, to real inclusion. What if every Toronto institution, voluntary agency, civil society organization set out to ensure that its board of governors was as diverse as its customer base? Not merely from a sense of social justice, or equity, but from a place of responsiveness to a new public and a new customer base. Think of our hospitals, our museums, libraries, the shelters, and the food banks. Think of the people who sit around these board rooms making decisions for the public good. Most often, they will replace themselves with others they know, others who think like them, who read the same books and went to the same kind of schools.
Think about this as an investment strategy. Your smarter money managers always advise you to do this. In this case, diversify not to protect you from the shocks of the stock market, but to protect you against irrelevance, outdatedness and a lack of competitiveness.
In case you need help, just ask us. We have a list of 1,500 candidates, ready, willing, able and trained.
Toronto has been incredibly successful in Canada’s multicultural experiment. We can’t forget what makes us beautiful – hopes and dreams. We have to foster the conditions that keep us open, responsive, growing, and connected (not closed, divided, disconnected, and fractured). We need to find deliberate strategies to connect us so we don’t end up with permanent solitudes. Yes, we should and must get the instruments and attention from senior levels of government. But the glue that I am talking about, the glue between people that really makes a difference, is in our own hands, on the sports fields, and in the boardrooms.
So my hope for 2012 is for all of us to get a tad sticky and to put our fingers in the glue.
For more information on Maytree’s visit to four cities in Germany, visit Good Ideas from Toronto: An Exchange of Immigrant Integration Practices.