issue 223 - September 1991
Immigrants bring a wealth of colour and experience to enrich the life
of a city, as Erica Simmons discovers in downtown Toronto.
In 1971 Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau made it official – Canada has no official culture. Two Prime Ministers later we got it enshrined in the ‘Canadian Multi-culturalism Act’ of 1988 which says that every Canadian’s cultural background is entitled to equal respect under the law.
Today, if your children’s Mandarin or Punjabi is faltering, you can send them to Government-sponsored ‘heritage lan- guage’ classes. And if you are interested in the history of Jewish socialists in Toronto, you can apply for money from the Ministry of Multi-culturalism to study it.
There is resentment, of course. Monarchists feel marginalized. Tenth-generation Canadians search archives for evidence of more exotic ancestral strains. And everybody wanders the streets of Toronto pretending to be in China, Italy, India, Poland, Greece or the Caribbean some nostalgically and some of us wistfully.
For more than half of the nearly four million people in this city have non-British origins. Toronto is one of the most multicultural cities on the planet.
Living in downtown Toronto I am so accustomed to hearing Italian and Portuguese that the rare sound of English grates on my ears. I shop for children’s clothes at stores with signs like ‘abbi gliamento por bambini’. Like my neighbours, I expect cappuccino pots to look like works of art, and to be on sale in video stores and butcher shops. I know that a ‘sports bar’ is not a health club, but a place where men go to watch other men play soccer on a ten-foot television screen.
For a more heterogeneous ethnic experience, I visit nearby Kensington Market, which is ‘an immigrant reception area’. This means every group of immigrants that ever arrived in Toronto has planted a commercial outpost there and quickly adapted to a constantly changing clientele.
You have to watch what you say in the Market and which language you say it in – the shopkeepers all seem to have doctorates in comparative linguistics. You must also look where you are going lest you be trampled by a passing Chinese dragon parade or a group of elderly black-hatted men on their way to sabbath services at the ‘People of Minsk’ synagogue.
Of course, it takes some people more time to mellow. Last week, I went into a newly opened store to find three men named ‘Yossi’ yelling at each other in Hebrew: ‘I know, I know, you already told me. Be quiet! Stop lecturing me!’
You can read the immigrant history of this city in almost any downtown street. Houses with rusting mezzuzahs in their doorposts are now adorned with florid tiles bearing pictures of Portuguese saints. In the heart of Chinatown you hear black gospel music through the open windows of the First Baptist Church, established in 1829 by refugee slaves from the US. The century-old synagogue nearby is now a Chinese community centre.
Perhaps most extraordinary of all is Chinatown with its scores of restaurants, grocery stores and herbalists; a fortune-teller who specializes in ‘Destiny Reform’ and a toy shop where you can buy a ‘lovely ugly doll’. The thousands who live and shop here are mostly Chinese with only a sprinkling of curious, bargain-hungry outsiders.
In Chinatown, I don’t even consider feeling insulted when a tiny old woman with piercing eyes follows me down the aisles of her son’s shop and stands by my elbow while I look at the merchandise. When she finally pounces on my shopping bag and looks inside without a word, I chalk it up as cross-cultural experience.
Some people would be infuriated by that prying old woman and the screaming Israelis. They are often angry when shopkeepers, waiters and receptionists speak pidgin English. Some blame the Government’s multi-culturalism policy for encouraging immigrants to remain strangers.
And true multi-cultural Toronto can make you feel like a tourist in your own home. But for me this is the city’s greatest attraction. Toronto’s ethnic neighbourhoods offer a taste of countries we might never visit. You may not always like the cultures you meet but you learn plenty.
Erica Simmons is a Toronto-based free-lance journalist.