Ethnic Aisle Asks: In the Matter of Suburbs vs. Downtown, What Is the Role of Race?
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Ethnic Aisle Asks: In the Matter of Suburbs vs. Downtown, What Is the Role of Race?

Monday night, while City Council was debating budget cuts and also discussing the potential de-amalgamation of Toronto, 40 residents from across the GTA met to discuss the roles of race and ethnicity in our ongoing downtown-versus-the-suburbs debate.

Ethnic Aisle co-founder Navneet Alang kicks off the first meetup.

Over the past year, federal and municipal electoral results have appeared to highlight a clash between downtown and the suburbs, with different parts of the city facing off on opposite sides of the political spectrum.

At the federal level, stories of the Conservatives courting the visible minority vote emerged during the last election, with some asserting that efforts led by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney resulted in Tory seat gains in the 905 belt around Toronto. (The actual effect of Kenney’s strategy may have been much smaller.) Municipally, of course, it’s a divide that many say has split the city since amalgamation. And now we have a provincial election that’s been focusing on the family and is beset by controversy over “foreign workers.”

I’m one of the writers at a blog called Ethnic Aisle; in response to all the above, we wanted to examine how, when discussing the differences between downtowners and suburbanites, the issues of race and ethnicity figure in.

We held our first meetup on Monday, with over 40 people filling the main room on the first floor of the 519 Church Street Community Centre. The turnout blew us away: clearly, we weren’t the only ones who felt there was much to say.

Attendees were split into five groups and each given a specific issue to frame their conversation: transit and transportation, culture, economics, and the Canadian ideal. The room echoed with conversation and the hour provided didn’t seem enough. Some groups had pages of notes to share when we gathered again, and while we didn’t expect any big solutions, we couldn’t help but feel that there was something to learn from just posing the questions.

In groups, attendees discussed the roles of race and ethnicity in the downtown/suburb divide.

One common experience: people move to—or don’t move away from—areas for a wide variety of reasons, such as cost, safety, and, most relevant for our purposes, proximity to community. Someone may not leave a neighbourhood because their place of worship is there, the grocery stores selling the ingredients they cook with is around the corner, or their friends are nearby. And once people form attachments to certain neighbourhoods, they are hard to break. My parents, for example, lived downtown but then moved to Scarborough for more space—but I still remember as a child heading to Chinatown to the Golden Harvest theatre (now the Toronto Underground Cinema) to watch films from Hong Kong. At some point, Scarborough built up enough of a Chinese population that we didn’t need to head downtown any longer; everything was available nearby. Similarly, after the birth of my younger brother, we again moved, this time to Markham, and we consistently visited Scarborough until the influx of immigrants from Hong Kong in the ’90s to Markham and Richmond Hill built up the area with Chinese restaurants, supermarkets, and churches.

We also wondered about the use of language in discussing the divide—language which often implies that living in the suburbs is lesser than being downtown. About a quarter of the attendees were former suburbanites now living downtown, and many shared the feeling that they had to defend the suburbs from stereotypes—conformity, sterility, and dullness—or act as translators between suburbanites and those who’d only ever lived downtown.

What is often missing from the conversation—though Toronto Standard (and former Torontoist) writer Navneet Alang touches on it here—is that the common perception that suburbanites are most typically Caucasian. Rare is the article that, for example, examines the similarities and differences between the Indian residents in Brampton and those in Little India. Some in our group on Monday, wondered whether the Toronto media, all located downtown, were even interested in suburban culture. When critics of the suburbs (media or not) decry the lack of culture, attendees wondered if that reflected an anglocentric perspective, one which focuses on symphonies and plays but neglects, say, Markham’s bustling Hong Kong-style cafes or ubiquitous DVD shops that not only sell pirated versions of Hollywood flicks, but also Chinese films and television programs.

Over 40 people attended the first Ethnic Aisle meetup.

One theory of how Rob Ford swept into City Hall is based on a suburban sense of disenfranchisement (although as mayor Ford has done less by way of giving the ‘burbs a voice and expended far more energy dismantling downtown). In threatening to close libraries, the Ford administration catered to a rich suburban audience that could afford the space to store books, but did not foresee the outrage from newcomers, many from visible minorities, who had settled in the suburbs and used libraries as a community hub and connector to their new home country.

As the night closed, the feeling in the room was that there was not only plenty to do, but still much to say. Ethnic Aisle is our attempt to introduce more discussion about race and ethnicity to Toronto—all of Toronto. Not surprisingly, some white attendees felt uncomfortable talking about races and ethnicities they did not belong to, but this just speaks to the need for more face-to-face meetings to create the comfort needed to speak openly, and without fear of being misunderstood. Be sure there is still much to say, especially when religion and the association of traditional family values to immigrants weren’t discussed much.

While plans are in the air for another edition of this meetup—we barely had a chance to touch on the role of religion in ethnic communities, and the popular association of “family values” with immigrants—the idea of holding future events beyond the downtown core is tantalizing. How would the conversation change in Malvern or in Weston? And how many people from the core would make the commute to hear it?

All photos by Simon Yau/Ethnic Aisle.

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