A youthful group of pedestrians crosses the corner of Yonge and Dundas streets in Toronto. Nearly a third of the region's residents are under 20, compared with 22 percent in Pittsburgh.
Toronto's skyline, dominated by the CN Tower, as seen from its harbor. Its influx of immigrants shows no signs of peaking.
The food court at the Eaton Centre in Toronto has a few chain standbys like KFC and Subway, but also a profusion of Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern and other ethnic food outlets.
Ratna Omidvar, head of the Ryerson Maytree Global Diversity Exchange in Toronto, says her city has become so multicultural because Canada's point-based immigration system favors qualified immigrants no matter where they come from.
By Mark Roth / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
TORONTO — To get a quick view of the demographic divide between this bustling Canadian city and Pittsburgh, just drop by the Urban Eatery in the city’s Eaton Centre on any weekday lunch hour.
The 980 seats are filled with customers whose faces reflect every hue of the human tapestry. Mandarin and Tagalog mix with English and Farsi as diners chatter with each other. And the food shops range from standbys like KFC and Subway to counters offering shrimp tom yum, chicken shawarma, nabeyaki udon and Moroccan stew.
While Pittsburgh, with a metro population of 2.4 million, sits at the lower end of American regions with a foreign-born population of just 4 percent, nearly half of the Toronto region’s 5.6 million residents were born in another country. The nation’s 2011 census said that 2.4 million people, or 45 percent of the region’s total population, was foreign born.
Toronto: the world's most multicultural city
Ratna Omidvar, the former president of the Maytree Foundation in Toronto, talks about the world's most multicultural city. (Video by Andrew Rush; 10/19/2014)
The influx of immigrants shows no signs of peaking. Between 2006 and 2011, the number of newcomers to Ontario, the province in which Toronto sits, jumped by more than half a million, or 16 percent.
While Indian and Chinese immigrants have accounted for nearly a third of Toronto’s recent newcomers, the region is incredibly diverse, with more than 230 ethnic groups. “In my opinion, Toronto is the most multicultural city in the world,” said Ratna Omidvar, executive director of the Ryerson Maytree Global Diversity Exchange at Ryerson University in Toronto.
There are two primary reasons for the stark difference in the immigration patterns of Toronto and Pittsburgh.
One is the fact that in Canada, where about a fifth of the overall population is immigrants, most newcomers head for one of three cities — Vancouver, Montreal or Toronto, Canada’s largest city.
The other is Canada’s immigration policy, which adopted a different, more proactive approach to welcoming newcomers in the 1970s.
About that time, Canada began using a point system to decide which immigrants to admit to the country, based on an applicant’s educational credentials, ability to speak English or French, work experience and age. The policy allows successful applicants to bring their dependents with them, but unlike the U.S. immigration policy, it does not make reuniting family members the top priority for whom to let in.
The result has been a higher-skilled group of newcomers than in America. Not only has Canada not faced the challenge of millions of less educated immigrants crossing the border from a poorer country like Mexico, but its point system means that nearly 44 percent of immigrants between 2003 and 2012 had a bachelor’s degree or greater. In the United States, about 30 percent of all adult immigrants have that level of education.
The main thrust of the law over the last 40 years, said Ms. Omidvar, is that “we decided to do away with place-based immigration, based on ethnicity and race, [and emphasized] immigration based on some kind of assessable competencies. We have gone out to select the best and brightest in the world with a deliberate blindness to source country.”
Immigration debates in Canada
That doesn’t mean that Canada has no immigration problems or controversies, though.
Joe Mihevc, a pro-immigration Toronto city councillor, believes it still takes far too long for Canadian immigrants to become citizens.
“The Canadian government has made becoming a citizen a long and arduous process,” said Mr. Mihevc, sitting in his office in the modernistic Toronto City Hall. “While there’s only a three-year wait” to apply for citizenship, “there’s another three to four years of investigations and background checks, and in the meantime you’ve paid all this property tax and you’re made to feel you’re an outsider.”
Avvy Go, director of the Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, feels there is still worrisome discrimination against many newcomers to Canada.
In recent years, she said, Asian and other ethnic minority immigrants who have gone on fishing trips to Ontario’s rural areas have been attacked by local thugs and pushed into lakes and rivers, an assault called “Nipper tipping” by local residents. “I’m not saying that Toronto is some kind of redneck place. Compared to many other places, I would think Toronto is a better place to be for many groups,” but said she is frustrated that such incidents still occur.
And pro-immigration activists are increasingly concerned with new policies pushed by Canada’s conservative national government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, especially an emphasis in recent years on bringing in immigrants through temporary work visas that don’t automatically allow them to stay and apply for citizenship.
There are now an estimated 386,000 temporary workers in Canada, and the first group that was admitted is facing a deadline to leave next year. Many immigration activists think a large proportion of those people will stay on illegally, adding to an undocumented population that already totals about 100,000 people in the Toronto area.
Chris Brillinger, executive director of the city’s social development finance and administration department, said he agrees that many of those temporary immigrants will simply stay. “Faced with the choice of returning to whatever their situation was at home and remaining here in an undocumented status, I think the decision will be clear for many of them.”
Despite these concerns, though, most public officials and immigration experts interviewed by the Post-Gazette agree that Canada’s approach to immigration is more welcoming than in the United States.
A more open attitude
Irene Bloemraad, the Thomas Garden Barnes chair of Canadian studies at the University of California at Berkeley, said that interviews with immigrants to Canada and the U.S. have shown that both groups have similar experiences as newcomers, but in Canada, “you have many more community-based groups that get government funding to do settlement support, helping immigrants get jobs, learn the language and learn citizenship requirements.”
PG graphic: Comparing Pittsburgh, Toronto (Click image for larger version)
Some of Canada’s pro-immigration attitude is rooted in its historical relationship with its neighbor to the south, she said.
“A hundred years ago the reality was that Canada was colder and smaller than the U.S. and so the Canadian government had a hard time convincing people to come to Canada, and even if they did, people often then moved to America. That problem didn’t resolve until the U.S. closed its borders. And so the attitude of promoting immigration has a longer history in Canada.”
Canada also has one other major advantage that shapes how people there view immigration.
“Canada did not have a long border next to a poorer country” — as the U.S does with Mexico — “and so it didn’t have the problem of a lot of unauthorized immigration.”
Ms. Omidvar, the Maytree program chief, agreed. “I like to tell Canadians, don’t be so high and mighty about immigration, because it’s an accident of geography. We have a long border with the United States and two big oceans on either side, so we are naturally protected.”
“Canadians like to pat themselves on the back for their multiculturalism and contrast themselves with the U.S.,” Ms. Bloemraad added, “but there is evidence of discrimination based on [immigrants’] background in Canada just as much as in the U.S. It’s just that Canadians have a harder time talking about it.”
Yet in some ways, that Canadian diffidence has helped immigration succeed, said Timothy Owen, director of World Education Services, a nonprofit that evaluates the educational credentials of international students and immigration applicants.
As the number of immigrants in Toronto mushroomed, he said, “there were stresses, and some racial violence, but Toronto was known as Toronto the Good, and they had the sense it had to be managed well, so that suppressed a lot of anti-immigrant feelings because it wasn’t seen as the right thing to do.”
That communitarian sense of public order is at the heart of Canadian principles, Ms. Omidvar said.
”Your Declaration of Independence talks about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The parallel principle in the Canadian constitution is peace, order and good governance.“ When she tries to describe the difference to audiences, “I like to joke: You send people to the moon; we have universal health care.”
Becoming a ‘sanctuary city’
The immigration wave in Toronto has led to political decisions that would be hard to imagine in many American cities.
In June, for instance, Toronto city council voted 29-8 to name itself a “sanctuary city” for undocumented Canadian immigrants. The vote means the city will provide services to immigrants regardless of whether they are in the country legally.
Mr. Brillinger, the city’s social development official, said that idea is actually embedded in the municipal charter. “The charter defines the city as a corporation of the inhabitants, not of the citizens, so I have a duty to be as equally concerned with undocumented Torontonians as documented Torontonians.”
Council also has asked the provincial government to approve legislation that would allow non-citizen permanent residents to vote in Toronto’s municipal elections. If the legislature approves, it could take effect for the 2018 elections.
As Toronto continues to grow, its diversity is now seen by many residents not only as desirable, but commonplace.
“For Toronto,” Mr. Brillinger said, “it’s not so much about us and them. We’re all them in Toronto, because we’re nearly 50 percent foreign born for a population that is nearly 3 million. Diversity is just part of Toronto’s DNA. It’s integral to every discussion we have.”
One reason the sanctuary vote for undocumented immigrants passed, Mr. Mihevc said, is that every immigrant group in Toronto that can vote has friends and family members who are undocumented. “You can’t hold public office in Toronto and be anti-immigrant.”
Mr. Owen, of the education services group, said that it took awhile for older Torontonians to catch up to the fact that immigrants had so vastly reshaped the region, but now that they have, “people see Canada as an immigrant nation and see that as a value.”
“Some small communities in Canada now want to benefit from immigration the way Toronto has,” he said, “but I think what they’re learning is you can’t just invite people into your city. You have to educate the people in your city about what it means to welcome people and what it means to change your own attitudes so the people coming in feel they’re part of the community.”
That psychological shift has occurred for most people in this booming city, and it is so much the “new norm” that Mr. Brillinger had only one comment at the end of his interview.
“I’m still stunned by the fact that the foreign-born percentage in Pittsburgh is 4 percent. For a Torontonian, that is unfathomable.”
Mark Roth: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1130.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
email@example.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.