The Foody Mart in Markham, a sprawling city near Toronto, is found in a typical North American suburban plaza, sprinkled with fast-food chains, nail salons and a small legal firm. But look closely and you will notice the mall’s parking signs are in Chinese and the bank serves customers in Cantonese and Mandarin.
Inside the Foody Mart, there are shelves of salted duck eggs, air-shipped mangosteen and durian. Staff hand out samples of fish balls and regulars drink bubble tea alongside young families enjoying hot meals from the takeaway counter,as Shanghai pop plays over the speakers.
This is just one of many large grocers that serve the Chinese population in Canada’s most diverse city. With a population of 330,000, Markham is one of a handful of “majority-minority” cities, where visible minorities – the official term used in Canada for anyone who is not white or indigenous – make up 78% of the city’s population, according to the 2016 census.
Stores such as the Foody Mart did not exist when Jennifer Chin first moved to Markham in 1991. Born in Jamaica, Chin, 53, is ethnically Chinese, as is her husband. They raised three children while running a business manufacturing Jamaican patties, often described as a quintessentially Torontonian snack.
When she arrived, the city’s population was less than half what it is today, and just 14% was Chinese. She witnessed the city transform with waves of immigrants: Cantonese-speaking Chinese from Hong Kong, Indians, Sri Lankans, then Mandarin speakers from mainland China. Today, just 22% of the city’s residents are of European origin; 46% are Chinese, 18% are south Asian and the rest are from a variety of other backgrounds such as Iranian, Italian and Filipino.
One of the most notable characteristics of Markham’s rise has been thriving pockets of businesses – groceries, clothing stores, spas, tea shops – to serve those groups, particularly in Chinese and south Asian malls.
“It’s good and bad,” Chin says. “I love the diversity. I love that we have different kinds of foods: Sri Lankan, Indian-Chinese, even different types of Chinese food. However, sometimes you feel people aren’t encouraged as much to adapt.”
Along with several other majority-minority cities on the outskirts of Toronto, Markham represents a remarkable outcome of Canada’s official policy of multiculturalism, enacted in the 1970s under the then prime minister, Pierre Trudeau. It states that other cultures are valuable as long as newcomers are willing to integrate into “mainstream” Canadian culture – typically understood as the country’s English and French colonial roots. But what does mainstream look like in cities where the primary culture is neither English nor French? And, as Canada’s population is projected to be nearly 30% foreign-born by 2036, what does integration in these cities mean?
Ethnic ties have long attracted newcomers to the suburbs of Toronto, transforming whatwere once bedroom – or commuter – communities into thriving cities in their own right. Markham’s biggest mall now features high-end shops that rival the shopping centres in Toronto. The city has its own Whole Foods store, as well as chic mid-rise condos to complement the earlier sprawling developments of large single-family homes.
As cities get bigger, it’s only natural to be attracted to those who are similar to you, says Mohammad Qadeer, a professor of urban planning at Queen’s University, Ontario. “You usually hang out and interact with people you share interests with,” he says. “Ethnicity and religion are strong ties that bring people together.”
But majority-minority cities also serve as a reminder that diverse populations do not necessarily generate utopian post-racial societies. White flight and hate crimes still occur, as do coded fights over issues that disproportionately affect immigrants – for instance,blowback against multi-generational housing, where several generations live under one roof.
And just because a city has a high proportion of foreign-born residents does not mean its population is always open to other newcomers. Punches were thrown at a recent protest in Markham, where groups of mostly Chinese-Canadians clashed over a proposal to temporarily house asylum seekers in the city, to ease the pressure on Toronto’s shelter system. The majority (81%) of asylum seekers in the city’s shelter system are from Nigeria.
Markham has nevertheless come a long way since 1995, when the then deputy mayor, Carole Bell, expressed hostility towards Chinese malls, claiming they were driving people out of the city and that residents did not want “signage in a language we can’t read”. Not only does that signage remain, the city’s official website now translates its content into more than 80 languages, using a Google widget. In the last municipal election, some candidates participated in debates in Cantonese and Mandarin.
There remains ongoing debate, however, on how much cultural change can be adopted into mainstream society, and how quickly. For instance, statutory holidays, which are mostly aligned with Christian holidays, are days off for workers in Canada. But in 2011, some Chinese grocers in Markham (including the Foody Mart) stayed open in defiance of the law.
City councillor Joe Li heard both sides of the debate: that grocers were being discriminated against for not being able to stay open, and that Chinese businesses were trying to impose their culture on the city. Ultimately, Li decided in favour of the grocers, arguing that consumers should have the option to shop on holidays. The move proved so popular that York Region, in which Markham sits, voted that from 2018 any business could stay open 364 days a year.
Li asked for something in return: to hire more diversely. “Now you’re starting to see it,” he says. “You walk in and see south Asian people in the store, you see halal meat in the store.”
Easy access to halal meat, south Asian groceries and a mosque are all things Rameeka Khan appreciates about living in Markham. The 33-year-old pharmacist of Pakistani descent was born in Canada and has lived in the city nearly her whole life, choosing to settle here with her husband. She is glad they bought a house in 2010 – her family would be priced out today.
“It would be difficult for a younger couple to afford Markham,” Khan says. “People I know are moving [further east]. If they do decide to live in Markham, it’s more likely they are living with family, like their parents.”
At the end of 2016, seven of the 10 neighbourhoods with the most rapid increase in property values in the Toronto area were in Markham – some properties saw their value jump as much as 90% in just three years. As in Vancouver, conversations about the Markham property boom sometimes have racially tinged accusations about foreign ownership driving up prices. Local media reported that one developer said: “There is no way a Caucasian would pay $2.1m for a bungalow.”
Brampton is another majority-minority suburb, west of Toronto. The city’s population – now more than half a million – exploded in a similar fashion to Markham’s. It is now 73% visible minority, with its largest ethnic group Indian, particularly Sikhs from Punjab, earning the city the nicknames “Bramladesh” and “Browntown”. There are also significant populations from the Philippines, Sri Lanka and the Caribbean.
But with its rapidly increasing diversity has come another development: not just a decreasing proportion of white residents, but also a shrinking number. According to numbers cited by the Toronto Star, the white population fell from 192,400 in 2001 to 169,230 in 2011, and now hovers around 151,000.
Rebecca Bromley, 37, says some of her white friends have left for a variety of reasons. “There’s a lot of tension [because of growth], so when people leave I’m not going to assume it’s white flight – especially if they want to buy a place they want to afford,” she says. She points to the city’s many growing pains, including traffic, construction and, for Bromley, more challenges in her work as a teacher.
Bromley attended the same Catholic high school where she now teaches and says the city’s demographic makeup has changed hugely. She sees troubling trends, such as African-Caribbean students being streamed into less-academic courses while Indian students face high expectations to excel. Bromley also sees students trying to bridge the linguistic and cultural gap between schools and their parents, and others who struggle with language themselves.
“You might get a kid who presents like they are struggling with the language, but actually they have a learning disability, or you might have a kid who has no conversational ability but they can write just fine.” Bromley feels ill-equipped to help students with such different needs because they have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, she says, and the English language learners programme doesn’t help her navigate these individual problems.
Gurpreet Malhotra is familiar with such institutional gaps. He is the CEO of Indus Community Services, an organisation that serves newcomers in Brampton. In his experience, businesses have caught on that integration is a two-way street – whether they are clothing shops hiring staff who speak Punjabi or grocers stocking Indian cooking staples – but government-funded institutions have not. Political power, he says, does not reflect Brampton’s population. “We have to dislodge the well-entrenched powers,” Malhotra says of the city council.
On the federal and provincial level, the Punjabi community is well represented in Brampton. The first non-white federal party leader, Jagmeet Singh, has a strong political base in the city, where he held a seat as a provincial politician. But Brampton has only one non-white city councillor, Gurpreet Dhillon, who is Punjabi.
In the last municipal election, Bromley recalls watching a Punjabi candidate on television arguing that the mayoral office should reflect Brampton’s ethnic makeup. “I had a moment where I felt, ‘Now I’m really going to be a minority,’” she says. “To be brutally honest, it felt like I was being pushed out.”
The moment passed. She remembered she had a stable job, in an ideal neighbourhood to raise her five-year-old twins. But she struggles with how to integrate into what Brampton is becoming. She feels lucky to teach students with whom she can have “honest, unfiltered conversations”, but does not feel she can approach, for example, the group of older Indian men hanging out at the park, or busy mums at her skating rink.
Finding common ground
“Intercultural interaction is a matter of common ground and increased opportunity for encountering each other,” says Qadeer. In cities such as Markham and Brampton, where suburban sprawl reigns and most people travel by car, those opportunities outside school and work can be hard to come by.
Brampton is trying to address this as part of its long-term vision for 2040. “The expression of the incredible diversity of the community doesn’t really manifest itself on the ground,” says Larry Beasley, a Vancouver-based planner who spearheaded the project.
To ensure people across cultures can better interact, Beasley says the city needs to create places for them to meet. After taking more than 11,000 residents’ comments into account, the plan proposes five city centres – walkable communities that mimic Brampton’s downtown area – to facilitate those interactions.
These new hubs would aim to reduce isolation by bringing together parks, government services, retail outlets and restaurants. The centres would also try and bring employment closer to home: 60% of Bramptonians commute to places outside the city. Beasley hopes to convince the city to adopt the plan by arguing that smarter urban design could help swap commuting time for community time.
Dance group Flower City Bhangra prepares to perform at a Brampton festival.Photograph: Angela Lewis for the Guardian
Creating a place for communities to converge was also Jael Richardson’s intent when she founded the Festival for Literary Diversity, which brings together writers from a variety of backgrounds. “I wanted to start a festival that gave diverse writers – anyone who’s not typically represented – a space to be the expert,” says Richardson. “We consider having the event in Brampton part of the diversity mandate in and of itself.”
The festival was initially met with scepticism – Richardson says Toronto writers frequently told her the event would do better in Toronto – but her tenacity appears to be paying off. This year it secured a multi-year sponsorship from Audible – the digital audiobook producer – and publisher Penguin Random House sent a sizeable contingent of staff.
Richardson is creating space for writers in a city where diversity isn’t aspirational – it’s a fact. While it is true that changing demographics here have disturbed the mainstream sensibility, Canada’s majority-minority cities also appear to be changing what mainstream means. For some residents of Markham, such as Chin, the question isn’t whether newcomers can assimilate into the city, but whether both can adapt together.
“I don’t think you need to fit in,” Chin says of her majority-minority city. “Everybody fits in.”