Visible majorities; Dyer, Gwynne
Canadian Geographic 01-01-2001
Byline: Dyer, Gwynne
Publication Date: 01-01-2001
Changes to the immigration act 30 years ago opened Canada's doors to people of every colour, faith
and language. Without much fuss, we've become the most spectacularly diverse country in the
SOMETIMES THE MYTH creates the reality," ventures Calgary high school principal Stephanie Davis.
"Canadians like to see themselves as welcoming of others." Davis is talking about the high-speed
nonviolent transformation of Canada from a 98 percent white outpost dominated by two rival
northwest European tribes to what it is becoming today: one of the most spectacularly diverse
societies that has ever existed. Forest Lawn High School, which Davis runs hands-on with blunt
language and great gusto, is a mirror of that fact.
Back in the early 1960s, when Forest Lawn was a new bluecollar suburb on the eastern edge of
Calgary, people wanting to come to Canada had to run the gauntlet of the racist Immigration Act of
1910, which coyly stated that we reserved the right to refuse admission to those who did not suit
"the climate or requirements of Canada." (We had better public relations advice than the Australians
and never had anything as crude as an explicit "White Canada" policy.) But then, in 1967, we
opened our gates to immigrants of every colour, faith and language, and in only 34 years, we have
changed the country forever.
On the surface, Forest Lawn doesn't seem all that changed. The houses appear to be half the size of
those going up these days in the subdivisions sprawling across the prairie farther out, and are even
a bit scruffy, but it's still a tightly knit community where, unusually for a western city, many families
are second- or third-generation residents. Now, however, Forest Lawn is also one of the city's prime
staging grounds for newly arrived immigrants.
Immigrant families will typically stay in Forest Lawn for three to four years while getting their act
and their money together, before moving on to a bigger place in a more upmarket suburb - quite
unlike the whites, who mostly don't move up and out. "Many of our [white] young people are
confined not by their ability," says Davis, "but by their expectations. "You know, `This is what we
do in our family - we don't go to university.' Whereas the immigrants, almost by definition, are very
differently motivated. They expect their children to succeed, to be professionals."
It ought to be a recipe for vicious racial conflict, but it isn't. The older generation of whites feels
some discomfort at the changes happening around them and particularly at the erosion of a
population base able to sustain traditional community activities, from drop-in centres for the elderly
to Scout troops. The total population hasn't decreased, but immigrant families in their first few
years in Canada have a strong tendency to patronize their own separate community institutions,
often based in a church, mosque or temple, where the language and the culture are comfortingly
Yet there is no overt anger among the older white population, no agitation - and the younger
generation isn't bothered at all. "Our kids are accustomed to being in very mixed groups," Davis
observes, "and the mainstream Forest Lawn student doesn't even notice it."
So why has it been such a peaceful and even friendly transition, at least in Canadas big cities
(leaving aside the alleged redneckery of our rural areas for the moment), when all the lessons
Canadians absorbed from their giant neighbour to the south pointed to the opposite outcome? How
have Torontonians gone from around 3 percent visible minorities in the early 1960s to more than 50
percent now without any major disruption, while the people of Los Angeles, experiencing about the
same degree of change over the same period, felt the need to burn down parts of their city not once
Davis's surmise, that "the myth creates the reality," is that Canadians, saddled with a national self-
image of being nice, friendly, tolerant people, ended up behaving well almost despite themselves.
Perhaps Davis is right, and it's as simple as that - but I have trouble with the notion of Canadians
being uniquely blessed with tolerance. How would you then account for London and Paris, cities that
are not normally seen as suffering from an overdose of niceness?
London is also around 23 percent non-white. But though England has no tradition of mass
immigration, London's race relations are as relaxed as Toronto's, if not more so. And while Paris and
France generally get bad press on this account, the fact is, the kid gangs that mug you in the
desolate highrise suburbs around big French cities are almost invariably multiracial. Loyalty is not to
your exclusive ethnic group but to the other kids in your low-rent housing project.
Morning meditation and Falun Gong exercises in Toronto's Grange Park. "It is wisdom for the body
and mind," says Wang Gong (left) of the ancient practice that is now part of the city's cultural
This raises the suspicion that maybe the United States is not the norm in race relations, as we all
supposed when it was the only industrial society of mainly European origin to have a racially diverse
population. Perhaps it is the exception. Perhaps the chronic racial tensions in America are a result of
that country's unique history and, in particular, of the fact that it is the only developed country
where black slavery was once a major domestic institution.
This distinction remains true in the United States even today. Non-blacks who aren't white either,
such as the recent wave of Asian-American immigrants, move up the economic ladder rapidly, while
a very large minority of African-Americans still lags behind. But this appears to be an American
problem, not a universal one. Indeed, it begins to look as if the real norm for ethnically diverse
societies, at least in countries with mass education and modern mass media, is an easygoing
acceptance of diversity.
In that case, Canadians need not congratulate themselves too warmly for the ease with which they
have adapted to the vast changes in their cities. We may be doing only what comes naturally. But
Canada is far ahead of the rest of the pack in this regard, which quite suits our history as a country
that has been inundated by successive waves of immigration for at least 15 millennia.
THE FIRST THREE WAVES of immigration to Canada likely all came out of Northeast Asia. The
firstcomers, the ancestors of the Amerindian peoples who now account for most of the aboriginal
population of the Americas south of Canada, crossed the Bering Strait at least 15,500 years ago.
Once past the glaciers, they quickly colonized the rest of the Americas, probably reaching Tierra del
Fuego in little more than 1,000 years. But these first immigrants were hunter-gatherers who lived in
small bands, and it is unlikely that the numbers moving into what is now Canada ever exceeded a
few hundred a year. All the subsequent growth in their population was by natural increase.
The same is true of the next two waves of immigrants, who crossed from Siberia to Alaska many
thousands of years later: the Athapaskan peoples (who, with the exception of the Navajo and
Apache, all stayed in what is now Canada) and ancestors of Inuit, who exploded across the high
north from Alaska around 800 AD and made it all the way to Greenland in less than four centuries.
It's now customary to view all these peoples as undifferentiated First Nations, and from their point
of view, given the disaster that subsequently befell them, that certainly makes political sense. But
they were at least as distinct in language, culture and ethnicity as the more recent immigrants to
It was the waves of European immigrants that gave Canada its character in the 19th and 20th
centuries: first the French between 1608 and 1759, then English-speakers (American refugees
followed by immigrants from the British Isles) from the 1780s onward, and, finally, a broader
European immigration drawing also from southern and eastern Europe in the decades from before
the First World War to immediately after the Second.
At peak, these waves involved tens of thousands of people a year, and they utterly overwhelmed
the aboriginal peoples, who dropped to around 2 percent of Canada's population. The Europeans
seemed to have defined the country forever - but then came the seventh wave, drawn from all over
the world and, in recent decades, running at a couple of hundred thousand per year.
Canada takes in about twice as many people, in proportion to its population, as does the United
States and four times as many as the United Kingdom. As a result, the proportion of foreign-born
among our people is more than 20 percent, while the United States hovers at around 9 or 10
percent. The countries that rival Canada in the proportion of first-generation immigrants in their
population are Israel (where most immigrants are Jews, though from many different countries) and
What is truly remarkable is the ethnic profile of the immigrants to Canada, which is unique in how
closely it matches the global distribution of the human population. About 25 percent of Canada's
immigrants come from East Asia, 25 percent from South and Southeast Asia, 10 percent from the
Middle East, 10 percent from Africa and the Caribbean, 10 percent from Latin America, and about
20 percent from Europe and the United States. Nobody else has this kind of spread, not even
Australia (almost half of whose foreign-born come from the United Kingdom and New Zealand, while
most of the rest are from other parts of Europe or the nearby Asia-Pacific region).
Canada, more than anywhere else, is truly becoming the world in one country. It attracts people for
all the classic reasons, such as too little opportunity at home and lots in Canada, but also because
of its growing reputation as a country that does not try to impose some new uniform identity on its
immigrants - and, of course, for a thousand more quirky and individual reasons. Ming Ma, for
example, came to get away from his day job and stayed because he fell in love.
Ming is an old friend of mine who has lived in Montreal since 1982. He is a brilliant watercolourist
whose work is sold all over the world, from France and Israel to the United States and Australia, but
as a young man, he could paint only in the evenings, after a long day's work as a teacher. Neither
family nor friends in 1970s Hong Kong could understand that painting pictures might actually be a
career. He was also gay, though he dared not acknowledge it publicly in Hong Kong.
"In the beginning, I was really innocent and naive," he recalls. "I didn't know there was an English
and a French side." He had decided to study abroad because it gave him a respectable pretext to do
nothing but paint for a few years, and he applied to universities in Canada mainly because a friend
had once studied at McGill. He was shocked at first by how empty Montreal was, compared with
Hong Kong, but the place grew on him.
"After studying here a few years, I was quite in love with the city- not too big, not too small, not
really crazy like New York City - and the main reason I stay is because I met Guibert."
Ming and Guibert, who works as a personnel manager for the City of Montreal, have been together
for 16 years. It's a very private relationship, but it's also a kind of paradigm of the new Canada: a
French Canadian born in Sherbrooke living with a Chinese born in Hong Kong for whom English is a
second language and French only a third. Guibert's children from an earlier marriage lived with
them for years, as did one of Ming's young nephews from Hong Kong, and even the large extended
families in Hong Kong and in Quebec are now part of the same web of relationships.
It's not the traditional sort of family structure, but it works, and so does the new Canada, even in a
city as complex and language-obsessed as Montreal. "Now I don't think there's a [language] side for
me," Ming reflects. "I never really say, `Do I belong to this side or that side?'"
This is an aspect of the seventh wave that few foresaw. It is detribalising Canada. The historic
confrontation between French Canada and English Canada depended on an ethnic uniformity and
collective memory that is eroding before our eyes.
The process has been swifter in English-speaking Canada, where seventh-wave immigrants and
their offspring likely now account for at least 30 percent of the population. People of British descent
now make up less than half of Canada's English-speaking population, and even fewer feel
particularly "British," so the militant Protestantism that once sent the Loyal Orange Order marching
through the streets of Ontario towns each summer inveighing against the French Catholic threat is a
thing of the past.
To be English Canadian now implies no particular religion or ethnicity, and increasingly, it means
little memory of the old history of ethnic rivalry in this country either. Louis Riel, who's he?
FOR FRENCH CANADIANS, however, the new immigration has been a more troubled issue. In the
early days, the great fear was that immigrants would overwhelmingly choose to become
anglophones even in Quebec, thus gradually reducing francophones there to minority status. It was
a well-founded fear too, since English gave the children of newcomers far more mobility on a
continent where most people speak that language. Until the 1970s, most immigrants to Quebec did
choose to send their children to English schools. And while the solution was obvious enough - force
immigrants to Quebec to send their children to school in French - that raised a threat of its own.
'I feel safe and comfortable here,'
says Rosemary Frimpong (left), a German-born daughter of Ghanaian parents who moved to
Canada in 1988. "Canada is open and accepting," says Frimpong, "I never feel left out."
An imploring look- "Are we on yet?" - beckons Janet Martinez-Jensen, an Ecuadorean Canadian, as
she preps children of her fellow countrymen on their dance routine at a cultural evening in a
Toronto neighbourhood. "The blending of peoples here is so beautiful," she says.
Nationalists, and particularly separatists, feared that integrating large numbers of immigrants into
the French-speaking community would change its fundamental character, and they were quite right.
Since Bill 22 and Bill 101 were passed in Quebec in the 1970s, obliging the children of immigrants to
the province to be educated in French, the future of the French language in the province has never
really been in doubt (though the chronic Quebec anxiety about it persists). But the future of
traditional Quebecois nationalism is very much in doubt. Non-traditional francophones - allophones,
as they are known in Quebec - have become a major cultural and political phenomenon in the
province. While they account for, at most, 10 percent of the population (immigration to Quebec is
significantly lower, in proportion to its population, than anywhere else in Canada), they are
concentrated in Montreal, the financial and media capital of the province. Greater Montreal is home
to about half of Quebec's population, and the presence of so many allophones in the city that sets
the terms of the political debate throughout French Canada has already changed the tone of public
Never mind the political debates. Listen to the news programs and the commercials. It is the sort of
thing that is almost impossible to measure, but the symbolic content of the word "nous" (we) has
changed significantly in Quebec's French-language media in the past five years. It used to mean
"nous," the heirs of Cartier and Champlain, the victims of a cruel history, the beleaguered standard-
bearers of values, traditions and a language forever on the brink of extinction. It was politically
loaded, and the message was implicitly nationalist if not separatist.
These days, in the common run of news reporting and ads, it has come to mean just "nous," the
sort of people who watch this channel or read this paper. They obviously speak French or they
wouldn't be here, but it is an inclusive "nous" that doesn't leave out new francophones of Italian or
Lebanese or Haitian or Vietnamese descent. And how has this miracle come about?
Personally, I suspect that it was the advertisers. If a quarter of the prospective consumers watching
and reading French-language media in Greater Montreal are not old-stock francophones, then they'd
better feel included in the discussion or else their advertising dollar goes elsewhere. No point in
alienating your customers. So subtly, without any acknowledgement, the language used by the
francophone media in Quebec is taking its distance from the old, ethnically exclusive historical
assumptions and obsessions.
As the tone of the debate changes, even separatists are compelled to insist that theirs is a territorial
nationalism, not an ethnically based one. It fails to convince most of the new francophones. They
will defend the status of the French language in Canada as fiercely as has any previous generation,
for it is now their working language too, but they cannot be persuaded to care about Louis Riel. It's
just not their history.
The votes of these allophones were already a key factor in the No victory in the second referendum
on Quebec's independence in 1995, and as time passes, their demographic weight in the province
can only increase. Is this just an accident? Perhaps, but also perhaps not.
The declared reasons for changing Canada's immigration rules in the 1960s were all about ending
the implicit racism that previously excluded almost all non-white immigrants and getting enough
people into the workforce to pay the older generations pensions at a time when the Canadian birth
rate (mostly thanks to the pill) was falling like a stone.
But one does wonder about Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
The first changes to the old immigration policy happened in the 1960s under the Diefenbaker and
Pearson governments, but Trudeau was already a major influence in Pearson's Cabinet when the
key shift to the "points" system for determining immigrant eligibility happened in 1967 - and it was
under Trudeau's prime ministership that those changes were codified in the new Immigration Act of
1976. It was also Trudeau who brought in the multiculturalism policy that has so greatly facilitated
the decline of the two-founding-nations concept of Canada. Might he actually have foreseen and
intended the long-range political consequences of diluting ethnic homogeneity?
Trudeau once famously described the traditional relationship between Canada's two dominant white
tribes as 11 two scorpions trapped in a bottle," and he came into politics with the self-assigned task
of saving the country from the potentially terminal consequences of its historic tribalism. He was
always a strategic thinker and not above a little social engineering.
During the later 1980s, when the far-reaching political consequences of Canada's immigration policy
were just beginning to show, I had lunch with Trudeau in Montreal on several occasions. Every time,
I asked him whether he had foreseen and willed these consequences. Each time, he simply smiled
and remained silent - but then, it would be all the more important for him not to admit his strategy
if it were, in fact, deliberate. Either way, the result has probably been the salvation of the Canadian
There is even a case for saying that the seventh wave of immigration may also be the salvation of
the Canadian economy. As our population grows ever more diverse, our connections with the rest of
the world grow ever more extensive, which is no bad thing for a trading nation. Even more
important, the variety of styles, perspectives and cultural traditions that our people bring to the
task of innovation is now probably the most diverse in the world. That is no bad thing either in a
highly competitive global economy where creativity has a direct impact on market share, especially
in the high-end global service industries like educational, financial and entertainment services where
mature industrial economies like Canada's must look for much of their growth.
BUT SURELY there must be a downside to all this. There is. In fact, there are two. The first is of
concern primarily to those Canadians who are descended from the first three waves of immigration:
the First Nations. Having suffered huge population crashes at various times between 1650 and the
early 1900s, Indian and Inuit Canadians have gone through a period of rapid population growth and
may now be as numerous as they were when Jacques Cartier arrived. But they are still scarcely 3
percent of the current population, and their political leverage over the rest of the country has
traditionally rested not on numbers or financial clout but on guilt.
Whether the question is land claims around the reserves, or the future of the First Nations in a
broad swath of Canada from Saskatchewan to northwestern Ontario where, on current population
trends, they may well be heading to majority status in many cities within the next 25 to 50 years,
political leverage is important. But to the extent that this leverage depends on the vicarious guilt
that European Canadians feel for the crimes of their ancestors, it is a wasting asset.
It requires a heroic feat of imagination for the descendants of seventh-wave immigrants to feel the
same sense of responsibility for deeds that were not, in fact, committed by their ancestors (who
were not even in Canada at the time). Mostly, they just don't. At a time when the centre of gravity
of Canada's Indian population is moving from the reserves to the cities, this may greatly complicate
the task of striking a new deal between the heirs of Canada's first immigrants and those descended
from subsequent waves.
The second downside of the Great Canadian Experiment is more generalized in its impact. About 85
percent of the new immigrants are going into our seven biggest cities and their immediate outskirts.
If you add in the relative trickle that goes to smaller cities such as Victoria, Saskatoon, Windsor and
Halifax, you quickly reach more than 90 percent.
In an era when there is no longer any free land to settle, virtually no immigrants are going into our
rural areas. Immigrants go where the jobs are and where there is already some support system in
terms of people who share their language and values. As a result, a huge new gulf is opening
between urban and rural Canada.
Urban-rural splits are the norm in every industrialized country, and all the Western countries
benefiting from the new immigration are now adding an ethnic dimension to that split. In Germany,
as in Canada, the cities now have a polyglot multicultural population, while the small towns and
villages are still inhabited almost exclusively by the old mono-ethnic population.
This is bound to exacerbate old divisions in a country as intensely regional as Canada. It will
intensify the suspicion that people in eastern Quebec have always felt toward Montreal, the
alienation of the interior of British Columbia from the cosmopolitan Lower Mainland and the deep
distrust that everybody else in Ontario harbours for the Great Satan, Toronto. As for the Atlantic
provinces, they are completely out of the loop.
The gradient of relative wealth and poverty in the new Canada continues to run along an urban-
rural axis, but now we are effectively colour-coding this difference: rich multiracial cities, poor white
rural areas. So the question is: will this dimension of difference ultimately produce the racial
resentment and political extremism that have been so notably absent in Canada's experience thus
This, if anywhere, is where the great experiment could come unstuck, and it will be a while longer
before we know the answer for sure. All we can say is so far, so good.
The whitest province of Canada (and the poorest) is Newfoundland, where more than 97 percent of
the population is of English or Irish descent and there are virtually no seventh-- wave immigrants
except on the faculty of Memorial University. If we treat Newfoundland as a test case, what can it
tell us? Consider the evidence of two witnesses: Shaun Majumder and Brian Dobbin.
Shaun Majumder was born in Toronto to a father who had emigrated from India at the age of 20
and a mother who was raised in a tiny Newfoundland outport. The marriage broke up shortly after
Majumder was born, and his mother took him to Burlington, Nfld., on the Baie Verte Peninsula,
where he lived until he was 13, the only non-white kid for 50 kilometres in any direction.
"It was unconditional love coming from everywhere in Burlington," says Majumder. "There's no
racism in Burlington. There was ignorance - `How come he's brown and I'm white?' - but they were
incredibly open. If I'd grown up in Toronto, I'd have a different perspective. I'm finding the more
population, the greater the percentage of human beings who live in fear. There are so many
conditions on who you give love to. But in Newfoundland, there were no barriers." Majumder, now
28, left university after a year to become
a comedian touring Canada with Second City and Yuk-- Yuk's, and he has now moved to Los
Angeles to pursue his career. But he has just bought property in Burlington: the three-room
schoolhouse, now closed, where his old teacher, Garland Morris, took him through grades two, three
and four. And his father, with Petrocan in Mississauga for 25 years, sometimes goes "down home"
to Burlington for Christmas, though Newfoundland was never really his home.
Rural Canada is not an unwelcoming place. It's just a relatively unpromising place for jobs. If that is
ever to be turned around, in the view of St. John's businessman Brian Dobbin, it needs to attract
some of the new immigrants too. "Being able to attract people who have perspectives from Asia and
South America and Europe," says Dobbin, "and have them move to Newfoundland was to me a
critical part of building that army of entrepreneurs who could go out and establish us in international
A couple of hundred such people did come to Newfoundland from 1988 to 1998 under a series of
business-immigrant programs, but only long enough to lay down their minimum statutory
investment and then move to the big cities. All but 1 percent left - and that, in Dobbin's opinion,
was a disaster. Had they stayed in Newfoundland and created jobs there, the current exodus of
reluctant economic refugees from the province might never have happened.
What is needed is immigrants who will stay, so one of Dobbin's companies, Newfound Developers, is
making a major effort to search out entrepreneurs who would benefit the Newfoundland economy
and arouse their interest in moving to the province. The new federal investor immigrant program's
capital requirements would exceed the resources of many of the most desirable immigrants, so
Dobbin is working with the provincial government to develop a system for nominating entrepreneurs
who would qualify for accelerated processing by virtue of their entrepreneurial skills, not the capital
they would bring.
"For example, we're looking at a 55-year-old Chinese entrepreneur who made himself a modest
living by our standards - a fortune by Chinese standards - in a Communist country where that is
very difficult to do. He has four children under 15 who are going to start university fairly soon, and
they'll become young entrepreneurs. He may not be educated, and he may be too old, and he may
not have the language skills, which would automatically push him out of the equation for
immigration to Canada. But he's a tremendous entrepreneur, and the contacts he has in that part of
the world could lead to so much more." AN IMMIGRATION POLICY is not charity; it is an investment
in the country's future. Canada's policy is the boldest in the world. It was launched a generation
ago; it's too late to turn back even if we wanted to; and the farther shore is not yet in sight. But we
are creating something new in the world. Not even imperial Rome at its height or the court of
Genghis Khan had the extraordinary variety of people and experiences that you will find in Toronto
or Vancouver today.
If it all works out, we will end up in an enviable position. We will have become "the world in one
country," not once but twice, in two leading international languages - and the scorpions that
traditionally fed off the bilingual heritage will be dead. At that point, we may even have become
enough alike in the two linguistic solitudes that we will finally understand each other.
To comment on this article, e-mail email@example.com. For web links and other research
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Seduced by the sudden serenade, subway passengers encircle Kathleen Kajioka and her viola. "We
have such diverse musical opportunities here," says the half-Japanese, half-Icelandic professional
musician. She plays classical Western music but has also learned Arabic music. Kajioka was born
and raised in "a really multicultural neighbourhood" in Toronto and marvels at the cultural richness
of life in her hometown.
Gwynne Dyer is a Newfoundland-born historian and independent journalist whose column on
international affairs appears in newspapers in 45 countries around the world. He is currently based
in London, England.
Copyright Royal Canadian Geographical Society Jan/Feb 2001