All Mixed Up: Toronto is the mixed-marriage capital of Canada

All Mixed Up: Toronto is the mixed-marriage capital of Canada

How our city is proof that if a post-racial society is possible, it will begin in the bedroom

(Image: Asaf Hanuka)

This fall, my husband and I will mark the 34th anniversary of our Chinese-Jewish marriage. Back in 1976, some folks (OK, my parents) fretted it would never last. “Think of the kids! Neither side will accept them,” my mother warned. It took 14 years—and the birth of our first child—before she quit running in hysterics from her house whenever my husband dropped by. (I’m not kidding.)

Yet in 2010, not only am I still married, with two fairly acceptable sons, I find myself living in the mixed-marriage capital of Canada. Toronto famously blazed the way for same-sex marriage. Today, it turns out to be a Petri dish for innovative people combos. According to the latest Statistics Canada data, nearly twice as many Toronto couples are in mixed marriages, legal and common law, as the rest of Canadians, 7.1 per cent versus 3.9 per cent. That number covers all existing unions, including dusty old ones like mine.

The much more impressive stat is how many young visible minorities are marrying outside their tribes. In what the census bureau calls the Metropolitan Area of Toronto (which includes Pickering and Ajax to the east, Milton and Oakville to the west, and Georgina on the shores of Lake Simcoe to the north), 45 per cent of second-generation immigrants who are married or living common law are doing so with someone of a different race or ethnicity. By the third generation, it spikes to a stunning 68 per cent.

The next time a wedding motorcade honks at you, check out the newlyweds: more often than not, the happy couple will be crossing ethnic boundaries. Until now, Toronto’s diversity has been viewed in terms of silos: a Chinatown here, a Tamil enclave there. But true diversity occurs when we interact—and there’s nothing more interactive than sex.

Our city is so blasé about racial mixing and matching that no one bothered commenting on the ethnicity of Adam Giam­brone’s side dish. Was the secret girlfriend who met him for trysts on his city hall couch Filipino? South American? Who cares? The only time the “R” word was mentioned was in this context: Giambrone exits mayoral race.

Toronto has more couples in mixed unions than anywhere else in the country. Looking at the latest stats, I have to pinch myself.

I was born in Montreal more than half a century ago, and at the time it was Canada’s most cosmopolitan city. How cosmopolitan? Let’s put it this way: I was the one and only vis min in my church choir. At Montreal West High, a public Anglo school, there were just three non-WASPs in my entire grade: a black girl, a Jewish boy and myself. As my graduation prom neared, my mother began pressuring me to go with a nice Chinese boy. Alas, there weren’t any in the vicinity, nice or otherwise.

My high school history courses didn’t mention the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act, which slammed the door shut on Chinese (and led to my aforementioned prom problem). And my Canadian-born parents never spoke of the systemic discrimination they experienced, including the denial of voting rights until 1947. For years, I chafed at their apparent bigotry. Gradually, as I learned bits of my family history—that my grandfather arrived in 1881 to help build the Canadian Pacific Railway, and that my three other grandparents, who came slightly later, paid the head tax—I realized my parents were clinging to our Chinese heritage for fear of rejection or persecution by the mainstream.

I believe this is what we are seeing in Toronto today. New arrivals come burdened with the past, fearing for the future, not yet understanding that it will be unimaginably different from everything they left behind. They cling to the hijab or the ceremonial dagger, sometimes beyond reason. On rare occasions, strict adherence to Old World values has devastating consequences. (When 16-year-old Aqsa Parvez now famously tried to ditch the veil—and avoid an arranged marriage—her father and brother strangled her to death.) But overwhelmingly, in a generation or two, immigrants integrate.

In the meantime, big corporations and leaders in the financial services industry are bending over backwards trying to tap into new Canadian markets. In the past couple of years, the Royal Bank has recruited 100 immigrants from China, India, the Middle East and Latin America as personal account managers. The majority of the new hires had financial services experience, and many were prominent in their communities. “When we have a new immigrant client, we can make a perfect match,” says Zabeen Hirji, RBC’s human resources chief. “We’re in the business of giving advice, and that requires trust.”

RBC has also launched a reciprocal mentoring program called Diversity Dialogues that pairs senior managers with visible minority employees several ranks below. Although it sounds like a politically correct PR manoeuvre, the “dialogue” is crassly pragmatic: the higher-up tells the junior employee how to get ahead at the bank, and the junior tells the higher-up how to, say, reach Chinese or South Asian immigrants with money. “It’s beyond Diversity 101,” says Hirji. “That’s the power of Toronto. The social imperative and the business imperative are two sides of the same coin.”

Visible minorities already constitute 43 per cent of RBC’s 13,000 Toronto-area employees. More significantly, they make up 38 per cent of management and 14 per cent of executives. Of the nine-member executive team that reports directly to the bank’s CEO, Gord Nixon, two are visible minorities, including Hirji, a Tanzanian-born Indian who came to Canada at 14 and is married to someone she describes as “a Polish-Irish-American-Canadian.”

Hirji says she feels utterly at home in Toronto. And so do I. I’m not thrilled when the other parents in my Lawrence Park neighbourhood mistake me for a nanny. (Then again, when I lived in Beijing and my boys were little, the Chinese nannies assumed the same.)

Anyway, nature has the last laugh. My two sons don’t resemble me at all—or my husband. They don’t even look like brothers. One looks faintly Asian, the other 100 per cent Caucasian. Often, when we go out for Chinese food, my older son and I get chopsticks, while my husband and younger son are given forks. Without me as a visual clue, people sometimes think our older son is Italian or Spanish. With me as a visual clue, people are flummoxed by the hues of our younger son. The other day, the waitress at Congee Queen, the best Chinese restaurant in Don Mills, assumed he was a visiting hockey player from Scandinavia, probably because I had once taken several teenaged Danish players there for platters of beef chow mein.

“He’s your son?” she said. “I thought he was from Denmark.”

My kids consider all this ethnic confusion rather hilarious. At 17, my younger son and his schoolmates satirize racism and, like the comedian Russell Peters, flip prejudice on its ugly head. The jokes go something like this: Hide your dog. Daryl’s coming for lunch. Laughs ensue, including from Daryl, an ethnic Chinese. As long as the zinger smacks a stereotype, it works for any ethnic group.

The kids have boundaries: they won’t make fun of anyone’s acne or parents, and they won’t bully anyone. But after that, anything goes. I love these kids. And I love this city. With ever-increasing numbers of mixed couples, Toronto is bursting with hybrid vigour. For years, everyone thought Toronto was an aboriginal word for “meeting place.” It’s not. It means “where there are trees standing in the water.” Who cares? It’s still a meeting place to me.