CULTURES One Street; Many Stories: Queen


This piece follows Accidental city? (not on preview here), tales of its founding by Colonel John Graves Simcoe as the Town of York in 1793, its native inhabitants (on its first coat of arms -- if long dressed for the Great Plains, not the Eastern Woodlands; our original motto "Industry, Intelligence, Integrity") -- and the nagging sense that the place was ever second best, leading to endless compensatory puffery. The latest: "World Class."

Flags at City Hall


The dreams of its city

World city

Immigrant experiences
& myths of diversity



"Our strength"
A pillar of City Hall wrapped in Olympic aspiration (others say "Freedom" "Friendly" & "Spirit"; so much for grammatical consistency). Megacity's new motto: "Diversity our strength."

* In 2001, Statistics Canada recorded 43.7% of the Toronto Census Metropolitan Area's population as foreign-born. (All other figures in this article are from the 1996 census.) The US Census Bureau's 2000 figure for New York City: 24.4% -- lower than Miami, Los Angeles, or Sydney Australia. But higher numbers are often cited by the media. (Source: "City of new faces," The Toronto Star, Jan 22, 2003.)

"The successful world cities, the truly great places to live on this planet, are those able to embrace the world's complexity, make it their own. In this regard places like Sydney or San Francisco or Amsterdam -- or the city where I live, Toronto -- may have something to teach us about civic belonging...."

-- Mark Kingwell: The World We Want:
Virtue, Vice, and the Good Citizen
, 2000

"World Class" aside, Toronto is truly a world city. People from all over the world call this place home. Nearly half the residents of its metropolitan area are immigrants -- a higher percentage than even that most historically famed City of Immigrants, New York. *

But then, lots of cities have lots of immigrants. And we're all immigrants really: even First Peoples migrated from Asia. But such truisms obscure experiences distinct to place, lives rooted in particular histories.

To most Canadians, "immigrants" are simply those people who got here after our people did -- their arrival not always welcome. Loyalists landed on Anishnawbe and Senecas; later (less loyal) Americans on them and their British compatriots, most English and Scots, some Irish.

More Irish arrived in the 1840s, fleeing the Potato Famine and English landlords -- finding, if often not easily, landlords and overseers here. Some Germans had come before, William Berczy's settlers cutting Yonge Street up through the bush. More came later: German was long Canada's third (and Toronto's second) language. Around the turn of the (last) century came other Europeans, of a sort famously sought by immigration minister Clifford Sifton:

"A stalwart peasant in a sheepskin coat, born on the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers for ten generations, and a stout wife and a half dozen children is good quality."

Sifton hoped to populate the newly claimed Prairies. Canada's immigration policy, Harold Troper wrote, "has often been unashamedly and economically self serving, and ethnically or racially based." Sifton's "quality" was clearly ranked: British farmers were ideal; Americans too -- not counted as foreign if white. Others less than "good quality" (though acceptable if stalwart) were, in descending order:

"French, Belgians, Dutch, Scandinavians, Swiss, Finns, Russians, Austro Hungarians, Germans, Ukrainians and Poles. Close to the bottom of the list came those who were, in both the public and government's minds, less assimilable and less desirable: eg, Italians, South Slavs, Greeks and Syrians. At the very bottom came Jews, Asians, gypsies and blacks."

From the 1880s until World War One, most of Toronto's immigrants were among those low on that list (with significant exceptions). Few were farmers, many from long settled villages, towns, even cities. Already urban in their ways, they had no dreams of digging sod. They set up shop in cities, some literally. More worked in others' shops -- or built them; roads, bridges, water mains and sewers too.

The great influx after World War Two would bring more of the less desirable if clearly useful: many Italians (long Toronto's biggest "ethnic" group); Poles; Slavs; Greeks; Macedonians; Portuguese. But very few Asians, Jews, or blacks.

Chinese men had been useful: 15,000 helped carve the Canadian Pacific Railway through the Rockies, "coolies" given the most dangerous work; for every mile built, one died. But Canada could do without their families: after 1885 a head tax stemmed the Chinese tide. In 1923 came the Chinese Exclusion Act -- keeping them out, and keeping those already here from becoming citizens. It was in force for 44 years, repealed only in 1947.

Jews fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe had come in great number from 1880 to 1914, the shtetel transplanted to The Ward and Kensington Market. Those later fleeing the Nazis fared less well: the US admitted nearly a quarter million, the UK 85,000; South American countries up to 40,000 each; China 25,000. Canada let in 4,000, only a few during the war. Asked how many might be welcomed once it was over, a senior government official said (off the record): "None is too many."

Black people were in Canada at its beginnings, most in slavery. A 1784 census of Quebec (including what is now Ontario) counted 304 slaves. There were more in Nova Scotia, and many black freemen. But most came later and in bondage, 2,000 carted up with the Loyalists. Slavery was legal in all 13 colonies, and the US states they became, until Massachusetts outlawed it in 1793.

In that same year Upper Canada banned importation of slaves: any who arrived were deemed free. But those already here were not. Simcoe had hoped to abolish slavery, but only "so far as same may gradually be done without violating private property." Some local gentry owned people and wanted to keep them: labour was in short supply -- and why pay for what you can force by right of property?

They settled on emancipation by attrition: living slaves remained private property; their children would be freed at age 25, only their grandchildren born free.

Slaves could still be bought and sold. An ad of 1810 offered a woman for 1,200 York shillings, her son for 2,000 -- steep even for the highest gentry: Peter Russell, Simcoe's slave-owning successor, earned 6,400 a year (he asked for a raise; it was refused). The institution was not, locally, economical; soon it was seen as unfashionable. When the British Empire abolished slavery in 1834, nearly all black Upper Canadians already were, officially, free.

They were joined by 30,000 escaping slavery, some as early as the 1780s but most on the Underground Railroad after 1840, when the US Fugitive Slave Act made it a crime to harbour them even in non-slave northern states. Some stayed. But with Emancipation, defeat of the South in 1865, and Reconstruction promising new roles (for a time), many went back.

Canada fondly recalls its role as the promised land of sanctuary and freedom, if often content to forget the lives of those it sheltered -- let alone the people it once enslaved. Their descendants, whatever their daily realities, were happily seen as free. And few.

For more than a century few more arrived. The nation's gatekeepers would, for years, still measure human quality by the colour of skin; by who would, or would not, "fit in."

Surprising ourselves

"If I were a traveller out of a Black Hole somewhere & had time for only a single metropolis before the rocket left again, I think I might well choose ... the city of Toronto.

"There is no pretending it is the most beautiful of towns, ... it has hardly acquired the rich patina of antiquity, but in the last decades of the 20th century it has become in many ways a microcosm of its time."

-- Jan Morris, 1988 --

The 1960s had heard load roars against racial bias everywhere, from the American South (and North) to South Africa; 1966 had seen "White Australia" opened (at least officially) to Asians. In Canada the children of immigrants had become a force, not forgetful of discrimination they themselves had faced.

Change came, like all social change growing not from kind hearts in power, but pressed on them by people who had seen power abused. Since 1967 Canada has, at least formally, accepted immigrants "without discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity or geographic region" (or, since 1978, sexual orientation -- a change first proposed in 1966).

The census of 1951 showed just 10,000 people of "Asiatic origin" in the Toronto area; by 1971 there were 70,000. In 1996 the Chinese alone numbered 360,000, the same number of "South Asian origin" -- from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangla Desh; 100,000 born in India. There are more than 100,000 Filipinos.

The region's second language is Chinese, Italian third, fourth Portuguese. Tamil and Tagalog outrank Greek; more people speak Urdu, Gujarati or Punjabi than do Polish. Of the hundred mother tongues here, English still ranks first at 60 percent, Canada's other official language ninth. Some 200,000 know neither English nor French.

Nearly 35 percent of us belong to what Statistics Canada calls "visible minorities" (the figure for all of Canada: 11 percent). A fifth, about seven percent of the entire population, are listed as "Black" -- a word not carrying here the singular social meaning often assumed (if wrongly) in the USA. Some have Canadian roots going back centuries; most others are Caribbean. Nearly 100,000 were born in Africa.

Somalis are not Jamaicans; Bengalis, dark-skinned, are South Asian. But all may find themselves typecast -- by police, the media, and beyond -- as "black."

Black Like Who?

in (if not of) Canada

Cover photo: the 1905 Niagara Movement, later part of the NAACP. The shot was taken on the Ontario side, the American Falls painted in as backdrop. These men (there were also women) didn't meet with black Canadians -- here only because Canada would put them up for the night.

In Black Like Who? Walcott speaks of "black Canadians" -- avoiding African- Canadian: "I think of it as a borrowing from the African- American context, one that needs to be better thought through." (Nor does be use Black -- as I have not Native -- capitalized as if to stand for a single & supposedly uniform "ethnicity.")

He has another reason too, rarely pondered: "African- Canadian and African- American carry with them a particular connotation ... distancing oneself from the black urban poor and working class."

Beyond African-Canadian
(Not to mention African-American)

Rinaldo Walcott, in Black Like Who? / Writing / Black / Canada, sees "blackness as a sign, one that carries with it particular histories." To see the particularities of blackness in Canada, we "might begin with the belief that something important happens here" -- too many Canadians convinced that anything, if it happens here, can't really be important.

What happens here we often see through the lens of what happens somewhere else -- sometimes simply to gloat: "At least we're not like the Americans." Yet we often borrow US experience, swamped in its media, and take it -- with a twist -- as our own.

In the mid 1990s, when Clement Virgo's Rude and Stephen Williams's Soul Survivor hit (a few) local screens, critics hailed the rise of "Jamaican Canadian cinema" -- distinct from US films like Straight Out of Brooklyn or Boys 'N' the Hood. Walcott queried that distinction, and asked why these films were dubbed Jamaican -- not black -- Canadian.

Our media often speak of Jamaica as an "Island of Crime," and "volatile young Jamaican males" altering Toronto's "criminal landscape." Winning Olympic gold as the world's fastest man in 1988, sprinter Ben Johnson was hailed as Canadian; stripped of it by a drug charge, he became Jamaican Canadian.

"Hood" films, Walcott wrote, render "blackness as victim, criminal and masculinized," seen by "both the white and black middle class as representative of the totality of blackness." He called Soul Survivor "the Canadian realist version of the currently commodified transglobal rendering of blackness as violent, criminal and 'underclass.'"

These works were made "authentic" by importing signs of identity: "From confrontations with police, to hairstyles, to proverbs, these films are packed with numerous elements of 'black' everyday living." In short, clichés -- fitting "the symbolic order of what sells as blackness cinematically" -- largely borrowed from the country that shapes, for the world, what sells.

Novelist André Alexis, born in Trinidad, once said that all blackness in Canada is borrowed. Some took offence; Walcott said that was silly: "Blackness is always borrowed. What is really at stake is what is done with borrowed blackness."

Derivative films may show us "the processes of racism," but they don't help us imagine our way past it. "Oppression studies" -- a staple of identity politics -- rarely do: rooted in victimization, they depend on its endless reiteration.

Rinaldo Walcott urges instead "the study of how black folk remake themselves and in the process remake entire societies." That begins not only with "a belief that something important happens here," but with the knowledge that it's linked to what happens elsewhere.

He sees that in the films of Isaac Julien in the UK; in Canada with the Dream Warriors, whose songs "celebrate black diasporic connecteness and passion," and in the poetry of Dionne Brand, who seeks "both to refigure black experience and to demand justice." Their works explore the "in-between," the sense of being "at home but not at home" -- seeing the world from a distinct place and "announcing the possibility of change."

It is a process "continually provisional and an act of doing -- verbing" -- not the "nouning" of rigid identities. His perceptions apply not just to blackness, but to any "ness" grown fixed, formulaic -- and profitable.



Toronto the Good, long a dour Anglo town, is now among the world's most ethnically and linguistically diverse cities. (Maybe the most, as often claimed -- based on a supposed UN study no one seems able to find.) In this it is not, as it has been called, an "accidental city." Immigration was always a matter of planning, shaped by shifts in demand for workers: on farms and railways; in manufacturing and construction; in service industries domestic and otherwise.

But it does make Toronto a remarkable city, a place its founders could not have imagined (let alone ruling burghers long Protestant Orange, outnumbered now not just by Catholics but maybe non-Christians). Its transformation took just a few decades -- a mere flash in historical time -- yet without flashpoints searing its entire social fabric. In daily time it seemed gradual, to some even imperceptible -- if not to many among those "visible minorities."

It happened in a country built on compromise (if sometimes grudging); in a city ever intent on getting on with things and never much fond of fuss. It happened not in an accidental city, but a city that surprised itself.

Celtic cross

Children of The Gael
Memorial on Grosse Île, erected 1909, to those who "died in their thousands on this island having fled the laws of the foreign tyrants and an artificial famine.... God's loyal blessing upon them."


The "immigrant experience" is a rich mine of mythology -- communal, civic, national. Canada has no Ellis Island, just docks at Quebec City, Montreal, Vancouver; some no longer there. Pier 21 in Halifax, a major landing point after World War Two, was named a historic site in 1996.

There are the arrival gates at Malton, Dorval, and Sea Island; the Peace Bridge over the Niagara River; the Peace Arch between Blaine, Washington and White Rock, BC. There are the platforms at Union Station and many other stations where newcomers were greeted. Or not.

Canada's most moving tribute to the immigrant experience is, like Ellis, an island: Grosse Île, 48 kilometres down the St Lawrence from Quebec City -- whose port saw 4.3 million arrive between 1815 and 1941. Many did not get that far: Grosse Île was a quarantine station; nearly 7,500 lie buried there, most dead of typhus or cholera, nearly all Irish. A Celtic cross marks their collective grave.

We have no Statue of Liberty, no "Give me your tired, your poor." Canada has lately been so eager to recruit the energetic and well off that developing countries complain we're poaching their vital human resources.

But we do have a record: accepting more immigrants per capita than fabled America; more refugees than most Western nations save the Scandinavians. Some 37,000 Hungarians came in 1956, fleeing the Russians; Czechs and Slovaks in 1968. Ugandans escaping Idi Amin, many Asian, came in the '70s, Vietnamese "boat people" too, some 70,000 -- more per capita than made it to the USA. In 1996 Hong Kong, Iran, and Sri Lanka ranked fourth, fifth, and sixth as countries of origin for migrants to Canada.

The '70s also saw Chileans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, Colombians, Argentines. Spanish, once rarely head here, is now the city's fifth most spoken language (not all its speakers now refugees). Toronto also heard Yankee twangs: draft dodgers and deserters escaping another nation at war, if a war most felt 10,000 miles away.

I was one of them, if as it turned out a dodger only in spirit. But I am for sure one of this town's many immigrants, among the fortunate when it comes to fitting in: Canadians haven't always rolled out the welcome wagon.

In July 1914 citizens of Vancouver cheered as the Royal Canadian Navy cruiser Rainbow escorted the Komagata Maru and its 376 souls, most Sikhs, out of the harbour. They had sat there two months, hoping to land as a few had before, even though Canada had barred Sikhs in 1908. Where they would land those cheering crowds cared not -- as long as it was nowhere in Canada. The ship had come from Hong Kong; it ended up in Calcutta, 20 of its passengers killed there in a dockside gun battle with police.

New boat people may be well treated by those who find them washed up; less so by official custodians, or pundits going on like Texans spotting "wetbacks" awash in the Rio Grande. Refugee claimants are just trying to jump the queue, some say; they're not playing by the rules. Well... that's hardly Canadian.

St James Town

"The projects"
St James Town: complex realities cast as stage-set cliché.

We do have our own myths, of course, not least among them that we are ever and always nice. Margaret Atwood once said Canadians worry more about being nice than being good. But much of our mythology, like most of our popular culture, is borrowed. Urban myths especially.

Videos for rap and hip hop groups, many big here, are often set to the backdrop of St James Town -- where black people are outnumbered four to one by Asians: Filipinos; Tamils and Punjabis; Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese. To those not in the know (though some performers likely are), any high rise project (video producers surely know) will project an "authentic" image. St James Town, if more than a mile from the downtown core, has that "inner city" feel.

People here, TV news talking heads in particular, blithely toss off terms like inner city or "the projects," the latter sometimes applied (even by some who live there) to another high rise area where Jane Street crosses Finch Avenue. Made notorious as the Jane Finch Corridor (Don't Go There! -- unless of course you belong there), this 'hood is, in fact, in the western burbs of North York.

In its nine census tracts (once two, subdivided as they grew) some 22 percent of people are black. Thirty percent are Asian. But we don't see many Asians on TV cop shows, even the ones masquerading as "news."

Many of Toronto's big visible minority communities are in its suburbs. Even its exurbs: Markham and Richmond Hill are dotted with Chinese malls. Grand ones; lots of people go there, not all Chinese. We go everywhere, or can: the most famed ghetto in this town is a gay one, the term gladly flaunted in the face of real estate whitewashers who insist on calling it "The Village."

Minorities are visible all over town (even invisible ones, though gay people are hardly an ethnic minority). But there are very few places where any minority is the majority -- except tony nabes like Rosedale, where the well off may well be. If you see around you gangsta rappers, Asian gangs, women in saris, Somali mums with tots... well, you're likely on the subway. Or at the Eaton Centre.

All this escapes those who go on about the racial dynamics of "the North American city." In fact there is no such thing: even ignoring Mexico and Central America (as most using the term do), no uniform category of urban experience covers the whole continent.

Impoverished ghettos are not an inevitable urban phenomenon. Segregation, even when not official policy, is socially engineered. As far back as the New Deal, US federal support for highways and suburban mortgages eased white flight from city cores; banks refused loans, and insurance companies coverage, to citizens left behind. It's called "redlining": entire neighbourhoods left to rot -- their decay blamed on "inevitable" market forces and, of course, the sloth of local residents.

In The Myth of the North American City: Continentalism Challenged (1986; that challenge odd to most now), Michael Goldberg and John Mercer explored on many fronts -- economic, social, cultural, mythological -- just how not American some cities smothered in that category actually are.

Yet we persist in seeing experiences distinct to place, the lessons and values of our own lives in our own city, through eyes colonized by America.

Vic Day at Cambell House

"Ethnic" fest?
Victoria Day, here marked in 2001 at "historic Campbell House" (not in its historic location), the old Empress's birthday still a national holiday -- if now held on (& better known as) "the May 24th weekend," traditional launch of the local flight to "cottage country."

The most odd of Toronto's myths (if maybe not so odd for a town ever unsure of itself) is that, until it became a multicultural city, it had no culture at all. Quebec's culture minister recently said that all of English Canada has no distinct culture. No surprise, coming from a vibrantly distinct culture ever scoring points off what they see as the famously subdued "Rest of Canada." (During the 1995 Quebec referendum the media tried it in soundbyte: "ROC." It didn't fly.)

But even federalists have bought into the myth of Canada as a uniform wash of grey flannel. In 1994 Sheila Finestone, then Minister of State for Multiculturalism, said: "There isn't any one Canadian identity. Canada has no national culture." Backs got up -- but, deep down, many of us believe it.

We have been taught to, ever told that nothing truly important happens here, that Canadian history is boring -- the line itself a bore. And a lie. The CBC's Canada: A People's History, 34 gripping and scrupulously authentic hours in both English and French (made for $25 million -- a fifth of the budget for Independence Day) was a surprise smash hit.

We have even been told our history doesn't fit who we are now; that its stories, fully explored, "may be offensive to some viewers."

In May 2002, on ABC's "The View," a guest's burst of blessed gratitude came out: "Thank you [bleep]." Network execs feared "Jesus" might offend. A recent US video revision of Gone with the Wind dubbed "worker" over the nasty "N word" -- Tara's slaves once calling themselves "field niggers, not house niggers."

Canadians, too, can be overcautious in defence (by proxy) of others' presumed sensibilities. The publisher of Roch Carrier's The Hockey Sweater, a classic tale of coming of age in the deeply Catholic Quebec of the 1940s, was asked permission to include it in a grade school anthology. Given that it would be read by "elementary students from varying backgrounds and religions," would they mind "the deletion of all references to God"?

To their credit, they minded very much: God stayed. But Canadians can be more wary of reactions, suspected hair-trigger, in that more sensitive realm known as race. In 1990 Holland Township north of Toronto claimed its local Negro Creek Road might give offence, renaming it Moggie Road -- after an early white settler. Blacks protested the claim itself: Rinaldo Walcott called it "offensively stupid," supposed sensitivity masking "a desire to render black peoples and blackness an absented presence in Canada" -- to whitewash the map, and our history.

But in our long march "from colony to nation," as one historian had it, we have also whitewashed whiteness. Its British brand in particular: we have been ever urged to toss colonial trappings onto history's trash heap.

The Red Ensign with its Union Jack went to a maple leaf. Dominion Day went banal as Canada Day, safely cast as a birthday party. The Dominion (a term coined in Canada) was eroded by stealth: The Globe and Mail recently told us "Dominion of" is now the intellectual property of a businessman in BC, allowed him because the nation's claim to its founding name "had lapsed through disuse."

All not to offend: the Americans (for them the Fathers of Confederation picked Dominion in 1867, not the scary if accurate "Kingdom of Canada"); those first Canadiens, most since Québécois(e); the many peoples of Canada not of British origin. Even at the risk of offending those who are.

A friend told me her grandmother had called the 1965 Maple Leaf flag "the bloody bandage." The Globe still insists it's Dominion Day. Historian W L Morton says we're still really a Kingdom. Donald Creighton castigates liberal historiography's "great fable of nationality versus imperialism," its attempt to cast Canada as "an American nation," all North Americans one big happy family -- a course more aptly called "from colony to nation to colony."

Tory cranks maybe, certainly ignored by successive Liberal governments casting Canada as too bland to cause even the slightest offence.

It is easy, even trendy, to see Toronto as a blank slate, a void filled by successive waves of immigrants and their many stories. Canada is not the melting pot of E Pluribus Unum, but a cultural mosaic. I have tapped that sense myself, quoting another immigrant, Alberto Manguel:

"Because of its lack of imaginary weight [as compared to Paris, Venice, Montreal] Toronto is a place that you must reconstruct on your own, without the help of universal cartographies. That is why there is an almost infinite number of Torontos."

"And," I added, "an infinite number of ways to live one's life here." That was in a memoir of my own life here: a place with no single, overwhelming sense of itself; a city where I and others could make our own sense of it, our piece in its mosaic of "scenes, spaces, centres, margins, mysteries."

But among its mysteries are the stories inscribed on this land long before I, or any of us now living, got here. It is those older stories that have shaped, and even preserved, this place where now we can tell our own many different tales.

This one after all is about Queen Street -- replete with signs of a culture long resolutely British, conservative, even bigotted. I do not view it uncritically. But I do regard that culture, its people, and their stories, with respect.

Without them, I would not be here.

IBM diversity

Diversity, Inc.
IBM makes its mark, on the route of Toronto's 2001 Lesbian & Gay Pride parade.


"It is hearby declared to be the policy of the government of Canada to ... recognize and promote the understanding that multiculturalism reflects the cultural and racial diversity of Canadian society and acknowledges the freedom of all members of Canadian society to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage."

-- Act for the Preservation and Enhancement of Multiculturalism in Canada, 1971

In his memoirs Pierre Trudeau, prime minister responsible for Canada's commitment to cultural diversity, did not mention multiculturalism. That fact is pointed out by novelist Neil Bissoondath, who adds: "One cannot help wondering whether this omission can be taken as a measure of his intellectual commitment to the policy."

He was not alone in wondering. Trudeau, long said to have offered "ethnics" no more than his famous shrug, soon stood accused of setting up "a slush fund to buy ethnic votes" -- a Ministry of Multiculturalism. Others saw a motive more true to his distaste for the passions of tribal politics. Opponent (and former friend) René Lévesque, Quebec's separatist premier, said: "Multiculturalism, really, is folklore. The notion was devised to obscure 'the Quebec business,' to give an impression that we are all ethnics and do not have to worry about special status for Quebec."

Bissoondath, born in Trinidad of an Indian family there for a century, was among those who felt, as he said, "used as pawns in the old Canadian tug of war" between anglophones and francophones (the historic contention of Canada's two "founding peoples" often tedious to Canadians born of neither), expected to fall for it on the offer of federal funds -- and a hyphen. He refused to be an "Indian- West Indian- Trinidadian- Canadian," insisting he was, simply, Canadian.

In 1994 he launched a scathing critique of "the cult of multiculturalism," saying its advocates viewed "newcomers as exotics," pretending this was "both proper and sufficient," happy to "reduce cultures hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years old to easily digested stereotypes" -- to "bauble and kitsch" that could be "displayed, performed, admired, bought, sold or forgotten."

Neil Bissoondath did not -- as you might imagine in a country officially committed to "niceness" -- win the award for Most Popular Canadian of 1994. Or since.

Selling Illusions

Cultures by Disney
Neil Bissoondath takes on "politically correct" opportunism dressed up in "ethnic bauble & kitsch."

"The public face of Canadian multiculturalism is flashy and attractive; it emerges with verve and gaiety from the bland stereotype of traditional Canada at 'ethnic' festivals around the country.

"At Toronto's 'Caravan' ... various ethnic groups rent halls in churches or community centres.... you consume a plate of Old World food at distinctly New World prices, then a quick tour of the 'craft' and 'historical' displays, and then find a seat for the 'cultural' show....

" may be forgiven if you feel, guiltily to be sure, that you have just sat through a folksy, Canadian- mosaic version of the Jungle Cruise at Disney World in Florida.... the colourful ethnics [like the beast of 'Jungle the Good'] ... look like the real thing, but their smell is synthetic. They have no bite. They are safe. Culture Disneyfied."

Multicult's critic critiqued
Battles of colour (invisibly coloured: by class)

Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada was predictably slagged by liberal mavens of official "diversity." But it also had critics with more radical critiques of the Multicult than Neil Bissoondath's own.

Rinaldo Walcott, noting that debate on the book didn't pay much attention to "white ethnics" (Italians, Poles, Portuguese), pointed out that "multicultural, as a category," is primarily "reserved for those who need to be imagined as adjunct to the nation. And they are people who are usually not 'white.'" He said Bissoondath's book largely dismissed "the claims that people of colour make concerning various forms of domination in Canada."

Dionne Brand, in earlier critiques of Bissoondath's novels, had accused him of "Eurocentric discourse" -- "the white cultural establishment" "producing Neil Bissoondath" as "a dark face to dismiss and discredit all other dark faces."

Such remarks, he responded, "revealed the hollowness of armchair revolutionary ideology."

This battle was joined on the familiar turf of "race." But it can be seen in another frame: class. Born of a prominent Trinidadian family (writer V S Naipaul his uncle), Bissoondath came to Canada as a student, finding York University "to a certain extent a protected, protective, ready- made community for a newcomer to the country."

"Call it luck," he says. In fact it was privilege -- of a sort few immigrants share.

"I do not write about communities, racial or ethnic," he says. "I write about individuals. In my fiction, humanity is not my concern. Humans are." He praises another writer for calling himself "a society of one." But -- despite Margaret Thatcher's "there is no society, there are only individuals" -- there is no such thing as a society of one.

Humans exist only as part of humanity. The well being of individuals inevitably depends on the common good. Demands to pay it heed Bissoondath answers -- like most liberals gone neocon in defiance of communal demands -- with insistence on private initiative.

"I have no ideology to sell," he says, just "the courage of common sense." That has a ring too familiar: people claiming "no ideology" (likely comfortable with the invisibly dominant one) ever brag at how bravely they face the forces of "political correctness." Bissoondath quotes (via Preston Manning of far right Reform) political scientist Rais Khan (addressing a Reform Party confab):

"People ... do not emigrate to preserve their cultures and nurture their ethnic distinctiveness. If they wished to do that, they would stay where they were because the environment is more conducive to the perpetuation of one's culture and ethnicity."

If, for many, not conducive to the perpetuation of their lives.

Neil Bissoondath -- like many people of his class, claiming to share their famed "level playing field" with the rest of us -- can be willfully blind to the dynamics of power. He fails to see that many people, if they are to gain even a fraction of the social power he is privileged to presume, must come together.

He is right to resist collective "identity" as a straitjacket; absolutely right to scorn richly complex cultures reduced to banality, sanitized for fit display in the flashy multicultural mall of state (& corporate) sponsored "diversity."

But he is wrong to dismiss the value (often even the necessity) of communal identification and collective action: people finding power, together, to claim their place -- as communities and as individuals -- in the wider world. To confidently call the world, as he can, "home."



The hope to render history inoffensive, common in Canada's politics of niceness, often rises in liberal hearts offended by proxy for "others less fortunate." The "defining tone" of much multicultural debate, Neil Bissoondath wrote, has been "the background swish of the whips of self- flagellation peeling the skin from white backs." He sees in this "more than a hint of condescension, the condescension of the guilt- ridden...."

But there is more going on here than attempted (and futile) atonement for history. Censorship by "cultural sensitivity" is, in fact, an attempt to erase history. To put the past past, to forget it -- and hope its (our?) victims forget it too. Appeasement of "the less fortunate" masks a wish to ignore where fortune comes from. History is replete with differing fortunes, contending forces, messy conflicts -- distasteful to those who hope to see themselves as nice, the world made nice by their niceness.

Touting our gentle mosaic over America's hotter melting pot, we can forget the full title that gave us the term: John Porter's 1965 The Vertical Mosaic: An Analysis of Class and Social Power in Canada. The words "power" and "class" (not to mention "struggle") make nice people nervous. They take cover behind a more fashionable word: Diversity.

True regard for distinctiveness means respect for difference -- differences many find distasteful, even offensive. "Diversity" has become the big tent beneath which the nice tolerate the different -- if rendered safe: reduced to symbols.

Like that Great Plains "native" drag on the 1834 coat of arms: hey, they were all Indians, weren't they? Colourful spectacle liberally allowed, even vicariously enjoyed: Wow! Gay people sure know how to party! And Caribana is wild! (And we make a killing off the tourists.) Cute folklore in which no one ever says -- or more to the point maybe never said -- "nigger" or "kike" or "wop" or "wog." Or even "displaced person," let alone the taunt of "DP."

That was rude. Now we're nice. We urge people to preserve their heritage. There's a new federal department to help -- Heritage Canada. We appreciate heritage; after all, we all have one -- if maybe not quite so exotic as yours.... And we love diversity!

We can afford to. We know who's still in charge. (So far.)

The discourse of "heritage," Rinaldo Walcott has said, is "insidious," even "crippling." "It always means having hailed from somewhere else," a term "rife with the recurring myth of Canada as a benevolent, caring and tolerant country that adapts to 'strangers' so that strangers do not have to adapt to it."

It is a myth. Neil Bissoondath's fear -- that Canada coddles "strange" cultures at the risk of losing its coherence as a nation -- is given the lie by everyday lives behind the myth of multiculturalism. He frets rules bent to grant Canadian citizenship to a few landed immigrants not yet fluent in either official language, questioning their "desire and ability to follow and engage in the debates of the day."

As if those debates were not (as he surely knows) carried on every day in, and about, Canada -- in person, print, on radio and TV -- in a raft of languages neither English nor French.

Neil Bissoondath came to Canada speaking English (French too, now: he lives in Quebec). He did not have to devote his first five years here to learning a new language while also struggling to find work, housing, or to raise a family -- as, apparently, he also did not: his first child was born 20 years after he arrived. Few "New Canadians" have been so coddled as he. (Or, for that matter, I.)

Still, as national myths go, ours is hardly the worst on offer. Officials can be held to account (or at least shamed) for what they officially believe. No politician holding power in Canada would dare risk saying immigrants should "go home" (or should have stayed there in the first place), even if tempted to appease whatever percentage of the voting public is likely, in any given media moment, to share the sentiment. Even then, most quietly.

Myths, even if not The Truth, have their uses. In our endless quest for Canadian identity, our ever renewed becoming, our official myths are not a bad place to begin (again). As long as we know we'll likely never arrive, never find identity as a singular noun; never have one fixed sense of "who we are."

And a good thing, too: it's more vital to ponder what we want.

Identity has long been handy in whipping up people for war. For modern global commerce it's a challenge. History complicates mass marketing, impedes efficiency, feeds loyalty to values beyond the one that counts: money (preferably in US dollars). So if you're headed to the mall, do leave home without it.

Or -- it's a marketing opportunity (consumer capitalism can consume anything). Feeling an urge to Identity? Crave some Heritage? By all means! Go shopping. For too many (modern gay men perhaps most of all), "identity" is no more than styles stolen from us, repackaged like so much processed cheese and sold back to us for profit -- as a "lifestyle."

In The World We Want: Virtue, Vice, and the Good Citizen, Mark Kingwell urges us to rethink -- and reclaim -- citizenship in the face of global corporate power, vast conglomerates "far more powerful, and richer, than many nations."

"But corporations are not democratic, and they do not possess the political legitimacy that is necessary to justify that kind of power. We have global markets, however unjust and skewed; and we have a global culture, however banal and enervating. What we don't have, but desperately need, is a global politics to balance and give meaning to these troubling universal realities."

Mark gives nod to the saw that we must think globally but act locally, universal realities made manifest in the realities we see around us every day. Toronto, he says, "may have something to teach us about civic belonging" in a global world. "There may be enough successful coexistence here, under conditions of extreme and growing cultural diversity, to indicate a possible way forward."

But, for all that, Kingwell too rarely lets his own town teach him. "My Toronto is small," he wrote in 1998, "confined to an area bounded by Dundas on the south, Dupont on the north, and Christie on the west. ... For me, life happens in the Annex, more or less, and southward," at the University of Toronto. Or on a jet plane, where he casts the frequent flyer class -- feeling at home anywhere in the world, or at least in any well staffed airport -- as models of modern citizenship:

"These new global citizens, whatever their mother tongue and regardless of their sometimes halting command of English, the lingua franca of the New Internationalism, all speak fluently the language of customs declarations and the luggage carousel. They know the grammar of taxis and hotel shuttles and courtesy cars."

Mark might have seen the world and saved his fare by taking Jane Jacobs's advice: Take a walk. Beyond the Annex, beyond a gloss on "the most ethnically diverse city in the world" -- its "conditions of extreme and growing cultural diversity" left largely unexplored -- to streets full of people once forced to learn a more rigorous grammar of ports air and sea: of lineups, checkpoints, anxious waits; of screening, grilling, medical inspection. And likely no courtesy car.

Unless some friend or relative came to pick you up. If Canada let you in.

Olympic promo

On July 13, 2001, Toronto lost its bid for the 2008 Summer Olympics, long fervently promoted (as you can see at the top of this page: Nathan Phillips Square decked in the flags of every sporting nation). But, as a pundit in The Globe and Mail wrote when the winner was named: "There was never even a race. We were there as window dressing, to fool the world into believing that every plucky underdog has a chance." (Sound familiar?)

Its backers -- called even in the neocon National Post "well meaning zealots and real estate opportunists" -- worked hard to sell Toronto to the world as the world, madly marketing "the most multicultural city on earth" (promoters never quibbling over questions of proof). "Expect the world!" they blared: to come here -- and to find itself here already.

The world, or International Olympic Committee honchos at least, preferred to expect Beijing. Local media mourned, but many of the world's people already here breathed sighs of relief: Bread, not circuses. If we can still get the bread.

Our lives remain our own, not sold to the world as tourist attractions. Ours to live here, with our messy histories, and our own uncertain futures.

On our own -- often messy and wondrously alive -- city streets.

See more on:
The city & its immigrants (Americans included) 30 years ago, in Time & Place: Toronto 1971, part of the Canadian Lesbian & Gay Archives website. For my own "immigrant narrative" (including a port of entry where I feared not being let in), see the 1969 chapter of Promiscuous Affections, as well as Real politics in Cold War America & Leaving America, & laying America to rest in An American Education (Short of Yale).

Historical revisionism preempting (presumed) offence to "cultural sensitivity," in "The Elderly Man and the Sea? Test sanitizes literary texts", from the New York Times, Jun 2, 2002 (with thanks to Chris Bearchell).

Sources (& images) for this page: Eric W Hounsom: Toronto in 1810, Ryerson Press, 1970. Donald Creighton: Towards the Discovery of Canada, Macmillan of Canada, 1972 (citing A R M Lower's Colony to Nation, 1947, & J W Dafoe's Canada: An American Nation, 1935). John Robert Colombo: Colombo's Concise Canadian Quotations, Hurtig, 1976. Irving Abella & Harold Troper: None is Too Many: Canada & the Jews of Europe 1933 - 1948, Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1982. Harold Troper: "Immigration"; Gerald Dirks: "Immigration Policy"; & Hugh Johnston: "Komagata Maru," Canadian Encyclopedia, Hurtig, 1988. Michael Kluckner: Toronto The Way It Was (Foreword by Jan Morris), Whitecap Books, 1988. Frances Henry: The Caribbean Diaspora in Toronto: Learning to Live with Racism, University of Toronto Press, 1994. Neil Bissoondath: Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada, Penguin Books Canada, 1994 (2nd edition, revised, 2002). Rinaldo Walcott: Black Like Who? Writing / Black / Canada, Insomniac Press, 1997. Ric Burns: New York: A Documentary Film, PBS, 2001. "Thou shall not edit Jesus, ABC told," The Globe & Mail (AP wire story), Jun 8, 2002. Toronto Reference Library Picture Collection (Grosse Île).

CBC / Radio Canada: Canada: A People's History.
Website covering 17 two-hour episode, from early aboriginal settlement to the 1990s.

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Spanish name, Polish downtown; one avenue, many stories

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June 2001 / Last corrected: October 22, 2003
Rick Bébout © 2001-2003 /