CBC Radio hosted a public forum earlier this week entitled "Choosing Segregation: Ethnic Enclaves in Metro Vancouver." Regular readers know that I believe the transformation of immigrants into dyedinthe-wool Canadians to be a multi-generational process and research shows second and following generations are less likely to choose to live in an ethnic enclave.
There is contrary research from the U.S. that says increased diversity leads to "turtling" of ethnic communities (i.e., withdrawing into their shells). But I would humbly submit that U.S. society and its approach to diversity is nothing like Canada's and that U.S. results can tell us very little about what is likely to happen in Canada.
Ethnic enclaves have existed throughout human history, let alone Canadian history. The most important difference between then and now is that ethnic enclaves, which used to be called ghettos, were imposed upon "undesirables" who were forced into segregation by the ruling establishment. When ghettos were formed voluntarily, it was to provide mutual protection for their residents from violence and abuse by the mainstream.
As the title of the CBC forum suggests, today's ethnic enclaves are a matter of choice, not necessity, and whatever you think of segregation itself, that's a big step in the right direction and speaks volumes about the progress we've made- here in our little slice of paradise, at the very least.
Participants thought the fact that the composition of these ethnic enclaves - voluntary segregation by the South Asian and Chinese communities, in particular - was the reason that it had become a topic of public conversation. Sixty per cent of Richmond's population is made up of "visible minorities" so ethnic enclaves in Richmond are somehow a cause for concern. Sixty per cent of White Rock's population is made up of people of European origin, but that is somehow not seen as an ethnic enclave nor a cause for concern. Makes one wonder, at the very least. I believe that it's part of all of us getting used to the changing dynamic of Canadian society, but that's not to say racism has been vanquished in Canada, by any means.
The most moving part of the forum came when an immigrant from Jamaica stood up to describe his experience of life in Canada. He said that he'd never "realized" he was black until he moved here, but that fact is now made clear to him every day, in ways both subtle and overt. He talked about walking along the street, minding his own business when the woman walking in front of him glanced back and then suddenly clutched her purse more tightly and quickened her pace.
The man, sensing her fear and thinking she knew something about the neighbour-hood that he didn't, also quickened his pace. And as she walked faster and faster, it finally dawned on him that he was the source of her fear - a middle-aged, middle class, educated man in a suit, who happened to be black.
There is no doubt ethnic clumping has its irritants. I think one of the reasons we feel so annoyed when people carry on loud cellphone conversations near us is that we are excluded from the conversation. The same is true of conversations in languages we can't understand. But these are irritants, not significant social issues. People are hard wired to discriminate, speaking of evolution. But we are also hard wired to reflect, to learn, and to improve ourselves. We need to keep our eye on the real issue - fear of the unfamiliar and the unthinking discrimination it engenders.
Dr. Joe Greenholtz is a regulated Canadian immigration consultant and a director of the Premier Canadian Immigration Co-op. He also sits on the Richmond intercultural advisory committee. He can be reached at joe@ premiercic.com.