It should concern us all when immigrants - and the new ideas, new approaches to problem solving, new music and art they bring wiht them - feel marginalized and unwelcome in our city.
By Christopher Kiely
Published June 16, 2010
Like many of you, I followed the saga created by the "open letter" from Mahesh Butani. When I read Mr. Butani's letter, I noted the accusations Mr. Butani directed. Although they were undeniably leveled at an individual, I couldn't help but see the accusation applying more toward the city and perhaps the country itself.
Let me be clear: I have not discussed this with Mr. Butani, nor do I even know him. I just thought the anger and frustration so apparent in his letter had to be about more than a couple of sentences in a speculating puff-piece.
I began to wonder about the accusation in a city context. Within minutes of Googling some Hamilton institutions that came to mind, I realized there is a distinct lack of diversity among Hamilton institutions.
To be fair to the HCF, according to their website the members are selected by the following (oh, and they're all white too):
There are more examples, but the intent of this article is not to debate whether or not the city's institutions lack diversity. The lack of ethnic diversity is real, blatant and beyond denial. The reasons for this lack of diversity may be debatable, however.
Is there a lack of desire to take part in these institutions? I was speaking recently with a friend of mine who owns a business in downtown Kitchener (a city struggling with similar issues as Hamilton but on a slightly smaller scale).
He told me about a successful local businessman who had immigrated from Africa and how he recommended to this fellow businessman that he should seek election to Kitchener City Council. Kitchener's Council suffers from the same lack of ethnic diversity as Hamilton's.
The response to my friend's suggestion was along the lines of "Why would I want to do that?" He found the mere suggestion almost ridiculous.
Do immigrants from countries where politics and institutions have long been enablers of human misery or bastions of crime and corruption bring those sentiments with them to their new country? Are there discouraging obstacles for immigrants who want to take part in local politics or institutions that cause them not even to bother trying?
I believe the answer to both questions is yes. Cynicism toward politics and institutions can run very deep in some countries from which immigrants to Canada originate. Since a growing number of immigrants are refugees, that sentiment may be running deeper than normal these days. The predominantly white-dominated culture of Canada must certainly be a shock to many immigrants as well. It must be difficult to get involved when you struggle to find a place.
Remember, this is a country that didn't have an 'urban music' radio station until the year 2001 and the application to the CRTC for an urban station in 1990 was turned down in favour of a country music station (like we needed more of those).
In 1991, the Mulroney government commissioned the "Citizen's Forum on Canadian Unity" - also known as the "Spicer Commission" - a traveling road show that set up community forums and canvassed Canadians about unity issues.
If you ever care to read the report, you will come across many quotes talking about the need to "be Canadian" and the waste of government money on multicultural initiatives. The report was very careful to avoid any inflammatory language but if you read between the lines the desire for a homogeneous "Canadian" (i.e., preferably white) culture is apparent:
What does it even mean to be "Canadian first"? Should the Chinese immigrant open a Harvey's franchise instead of a Chinese food restaurant? Should the immigrant from India reject cricket and watch hockey? If they do not, are they failing to be "Canadian"?
Canadian culture has been forged through immigration since the days of Giovanni Caboto and Jacques Cartier. The culture of Canada was created by immigrants from England, France, Italy, Ireland, and so on. They came here and kept their traditions, and over time those cultures and traditions formed the Canadian identity.
So why should it be any different now? Is it because the immigrants are now visibly different and are no longer of predominantly European ancestry? We can debate the true meaning of these types of "be Canadian" statements, but I believe an excerpt from a Kitchener-Waterloo Record article from the time (written, as it happens, by my father) will clear up what these people really meant:
I have attended Spicer meetings in Kitchener and Wellesley and found them to be depressing exercises. Even if the racist slurs and belligerent statements can be written off as the views of a bitter minority... It was often acrimonious and the comments about some minority groups disturbed... some people appear to be targeting minorities for Canada's current economic downturn.
If there is anything positive, it's that with all the racial slurs, unfounded opinions, prejudice and acrimony, there has yet to be any violence at a Spicer meeting. In almost any other country in the world there would have been riots, knifings, brawls, gunfire and bombings by this time.
Maybe we are too Canadian for such things. Maybe we just don't care.
To its credit, the Spicer Commission did get this part right:
The struggle of minority ethnocultural communities is largely one of turning around the way things have been done in the past, on the premise that while society is changing, institutions are not.
We're almost 20 years removed from the "Citizen's Forum on Canadian Unity" now. I would have used a more recent example but it appears that since 1991 our government has learned not to provide Canadians an open forum on unity just so we can display our collective racial prejudices.
Still, we hear much of that same rhetoric: the need to "be Canadian", the insinuation that immigrants are to blame for our economic woes, and the sentiment that our government should not support multicultural events.
When I first began writing this article, I realized that I am a middle-class white guy and perhaps not the best person to point out these issues. However, as I thought more about it I began to think of those things as less of a constraint and more of a reason to write the article. If said middle class white guy can notice these things, the problem must be far more poignant for visible minorities and new immigrants trying to find their place in a new home.
The inclusion of new immigrants is vital for a city. In New York city, Jewish and Italian immigrants filled the neghbourhoods left behind by the Irish. In Toronto, Chinese immigrants filled the neighbourhood left behind by the Jews (i.e., Spadina Ave.). These waves of new immigrants become essential components of a more natural form of urban development.
We can simply continue to wait for the "Creative Class" to find us, spurring developers to build trendy condos, restaurants, and cafes (while also sparking the debate about gentrification and displacement of the poor). Or we can also embrace the constant flow of new immigrants who tend to live side-by-side with current residents of marginal neighbourhoods and with the support of the community, slowly and more naturally convert marginal neighbourhoods into more vibrant ethnic hubs.
There is also evidence showing new immigrants are more likely to be entrepreneurs. That is a vital role in a city desperately looking to grow new businesses and jobs. But as a recent Spectator article highlights, Hamilton isn't retaining its new immigrants. This isn't the first time our inability to retain immigrants has been pointed out to us.
This is why it should be of great concern to all of us when anyone who faces prejudice on an often daily basis, who sees very little of their cultural identity represented in our mainstream culture, and who sees a total lack of ethnic diversity in the city's institutions, finally braves the daunting task of climbing the ivory tower (pun intended) only to get kicked off the ladder before they even have a firm grasp on the bottom rung.
Immigrants and the new ideas, new approaches to problem solving, new music and art (not to mention the often super-tasty food) they bring with them, are essential parts of any healthy and vibrant city. So to Mr. Butani I would like to say: don't give up. Even if you don't reach the top of that ladder yourself, you are still blazing a trail for those who we hope will follow. It takes people who refuse to move to the back of the bus to bring change.
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