The Divided City: multiculturalism left us stuck on the periphery of Toronto
The squat apartment building was nothing special. The super, Mr. Lee, was forever yelling at us kids. He was in a constant rage that we never shut the front door or that we rode the rickety elevator too much, and he certainly didn’t appreciate when the boys played baseball in the parking lot, using the Dumpsters as bases.
We kids were a mixed bag: Pakistanis, Chinese, Czechs, Italians. We came from disparate places but had a shared experience of being different. My parents had come to Canada from Pakistan in the ’60s so my father could do his chemistry PhD, and we settled in Toronto permanently in 1978. As a research scientist, my father felt he had better prospects here than in the developing world. Our neighbourhood near the intersection of Kennedy and Eglinton was shabby with no green space, full of working-class people who spoke with accents. In the winter, we skated at the community centre. In the summer, the boys skateboarded on the concrete hills at the nearby Catholic school while the girls watched or jumped rope.
Most of us were born elsewhere, but there were a few who were born in Canada. Upon hearing someone was from inside these borders, we’d typically exclaim, “Lucky!” We didn’t quite feel it was even appropriate to call ourselves Canadian—that was a term reserved for our white friends. Putting ourselves in the same category as the white kids felt like both a betrayal of our parents and presumptuous on our part that “we” were the same as “them.” My mom would ask me, “Where is Heather from?” I’d reply, “She’s Canadian.” She’d ask, “Who is Catherine?”
“She’s Vietnamese, Mom.”
In our neighbourhood, my mother was the Avon lady. She had an extensive client list. Her busiest time would be just before summer vacation when those who could afford it would take trips “back home,” having saved their money all year long. The women would order lipsticks and perfumes and heart-shaped lockets to take to their sisters and cousins. The families that lived in my neighbourhood were not unlike mine: the parents were immigrants of colour, well educated. But we learned early that credentials and ability are not enough. It’s not always what you know but who you know, and our immigrant parents didn’t know the right people. Our parents’ mantra of “Work hard, study hard” was more like a balm than a prescription. Many of those well-educated people, especially the ones with weak English, were toiling in factory jobs despite work experience that would make a recruiter weep.
That loss of status was frustrating for them. We’d sometimes hear the anger when the adults were talking. But we also understood that it was for us. Our parents left their homes and families, in many cases left behind wealth and comfort, to give us better opportunities in a safer place. When they saw us slacking, their sacrifices felt worthless. Every kid had heard the parental lecture that started with “Why did we come here if you refuse to fill-in-the-blank?”
Immigration is effacement. Our parents’ extraordinary stories didn’t become bold tales of survival. They were simply reduced to a shoulder shrug or a sad smile. We heard stories of war, conflict, mass exodus and post-colonial borders redrawn in snippets at gatherings of family friends, where the men usually played cards and the women ran the kitchen. We didn’t often follow up on these stories until high school or university, when we heard about faraway upheavals in international relations or history class.
To the outside world, our parents’ experiences disappeared behind the treacly doctrine of multiculturalism. We got to keep our hyphenated identities as long as the hyphens didn’t make any demands and our stories from other places were limited to tasty foods and festive costumes. The hyphen was always a problem. Where was the emphasis? Which part was paramount? When politics shone the spotlight on the wrong part of the hyphen, trouble was sure to follow.
One day, when my brothers were about eight and 11, they were surrounded by a group of older white boys from the neighbourhood. They asked my brothers if they were “Eye-ranian.” It was 1979. The American hostages in Tehran were a staple on the nightly news and people of colour are always proxies. My eldest brother replied no, they were Pakistani. He got cuffed in the head anyway because Iranian is Pakistani is Bangladeshi. Brown is brown. “Pakistani” was definitely the wrong answer, but it didn’t feel like “Canadian” was the right one either.
We eventually left our two-bedroom apartment in that squat building and moved north to Agincourt. My father had taught at universities in various countries for years but was never offered more than sporadic work lecturing at the University of Toronto. In 1980, he abandoned the academic life for a job with the federal government. With his better pay came a better neighbourhood—this one filled with immigrants who had sort of made it.
I hadn’t noticed how shabby our old neighbourhood was until we arrived at this new place. We had trees and a grassy yard. Instead of skateboarding on concrete hills, the boys rode their bikes on wide sidewalks. The girls still jumped rope.
After we left the old building, our quiet intersection became home to Kennedy Station and the traffic increased, it seemed, a millionfold. The last time I ventured there, our stretch of Kennedy Road was still shabby, the faces still mostly of colour.
I grew up on the periphery of this city, among people who weren’t creating the cultural conversation. We gazed at white Toronto and wondered if we could ever make our way over there. Was there a way to drop that nagging hyphen? Was there a way to just be Canadian and sidestep the question “Where are you from, really?”
Torontonians love calling Toronto one of the most diverse cities in the world. We take it as a point of pride that pretty much every language and every ethnic group is represented here and that in every neighbourhood you can find a restaurant that serves something exotic. But those angry, frustrated adult conversations from my childhood carry on in suburban neighbourhoods among a new generation of well-educated immigrants who are chronically underemployed.
We are proud of the presence of “our visible minorities.” But presence still doesn’t mean inclusion.