Sitting in a café in downtown Toronto you could be anywhere in the world. In fact, it’s almost impossible to tell you are in Canada.
The city is a melting pot of faces from all around the world, no more Caucasian than it is African, Asian, Indian, Arab or Latino.
Just over half of the Toronto regions 5.6 million residents were born in another country according to the most recent (2011) census. This figure means little itself considering that over 80% of people in Dubai were born overseas, but they predominantly come from a small group of South Asian or Western countries.
In contrast, more than 230 ethnic groups call Toronto home which is why it has been named the most diverse city in the world by the BBC recently.
This didn’t happen by accident; it is immigration by design.
In the 1970s Toronto decided it wasn’t going to select immigrants based on source country alone or with the purpose of reuniting family members as per the USA. Instead it took a points based approach to encourage good people to the city, regardless of where they were from. The points system was based on people’s educational levels, ability to speak English or French, age and work experience.
The result is that nearly 44% of immigrants to Canada between 2003 and 2012 had a Bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to only 30% of US adult immigration during the same period.
This policy of preferential treatment for educated, successful immigrants could arguably be creating a classist divide. But Canada’s generous social services system and policies that aspire to tolerance and inclusion show this to not be the case.
In 1988, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act was passed making it easier for immigrants to come to Canada and have a comfortable life. Its conditions included recognizing and protecting multicultural heritage and Aboriginal rights, equality rights in terms of colour and religion, minorities rights to enjoy their cultures and acknowledging that while English and French are the official languages, other languages may be used.
This combined with public health care and education services for immigrants and a generous social security net means that Toronto not only invites immigrants to the city, but creates the social circumstances which helps people to integrate and set up meaningful, successful lives for themselves and their families.
Further in 2011, the Toronto city council voted 29-8 to name itself a ‘sanctuary city’ for undocumented immigrants. This means that immigrants can access vital public services regardless of whether they are in the country illegally.
One reason this vote passed is that every voting immigrant group in Toronto has undocumented family and friends at home. It is hard to hold public office in Toronto and be anti-immigrant, for the office itself is immigrant composed.
Like every issue, there is more than one perspective on the rights, wrongs, successes or failures of a process. The point of this article is not to cover every shade of Toronto’s immigration story or argue on the nuances of particular policies and practices.
What is clear is that relative to many other places in the world, Toronto is leading the way in developing a culture that moves away from ‘us and them’ in the immigration conversation.
It is cultivating diversity as part of its DNA, realizing that immigration has built and will continue to build strong, thriving, tolerant and successful nations.
I hope that Canada can provide examples to other nations that we are indeed stronger together than apart and that human values should replace national or cultural values in the rhetoric about immigration moving forward.