Editor’s Letter (January 2012): how immigration and repatriation are making Toronto a more interesting city
Cities are often affected by political events outside their borders. In the mid-20th century, North American cities profited enormously from the arrival of well-educated immigrants fleeing the Nazis. The brilliant philosopher Hannah Arendt famously landed in Manhattan after escaping France in 1941. The pioneering modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe moved to Chicago in 1937 after the Nazis deemed his work not German enough. Later, in 1956, when Soviet troops occupied Hungary, Canada admitted close to 40,000 Hungarian refugees, nearly doubling the Hungarian-Canadian population. Many intellectuals, writers and artists settled in Toronto, and the city’s café culture was born.
A decade or so later, Canada absorbed a tidal wave of draft dodgers—tens of thousands of young Americans, many of them well-educated, who came here to avoid fighting in Vietnam. For Toronto, it was a windfall. Dodgers proved to have a profound impact on the social makeup of the city, assuming leadership roles in our universities and cultural institutions as well as the corporate world. Andy Barrie, the former host of Metro Morning on CBC, exemplified the phenomenon: for 15 years on the show, he was a fierce Toronto patriot, more enthusiastic about his adopted city than many of us who were born here.
Today, world events are again conspiring to make Toronto a more interesting city. As the American economy fails to recover, a growing group of professionals are looking north for a better life. The Canadian Department of Citizenship and Immigration reports that the number of Americans applying for Canadian work visas has increased steadily over the past few years (reaching nearly 35,000 in 2010). Immigration officials, not surprisingly, are also noting a surge of applications from European countries such as Ireland and Greece. And according to Toronto Homecoming, an organization that connects expat Toronto professionals with job opportunities in the city, a growing number of Canadians who have spent much of their lives abroad are returning home.
Talent is flocking here. An acquaintance of mine who works at the University of Toronto says that when a job opening is posted there now, it attracts hundreds of top-rate candidates from beyond our borders—and the quality of applicants improves every year. I know a Canadian couple, both graduating soon from Harvard with PhDs, who are eager to return to Toronto, if they are lucky enough to secure jobs here. It’s the only major city where they can imagine earning enough money to own property and at the same time find public schools good enough for their baby daughter. Where else in the Western world might they go? They fear America is falling apart, Europe is about to endure mass hardship, and Australia is, well, just too far away. They want to be in a city that is growing and prosperous, and their options are limited.
All of this immigration and repatriation is great news for Toronto. The price of an average two-storey house is up 7.6 per cent this year—a sign of our prosperity and desirability—at a time when property values in most other parts of the West are falling. As we have learned from other influxes of brainy, ambitious immigrants, the city can benefit from their presence in unexpected ways. Even now, when Toronto has a mayor whose international claim to fame is being named “the worst person in the world” by Keith Olbermann, the city might be on the brink of an interesting new era.