Kimchee to Latkes: German President visits Kensington Market

November 2nd, 2014
Bundespräsident Gauck in Kanada 2014


Kensington Market is the symbolic streetscape of diversity in Toronto, the nation’s most diverse city with half its population born outside Canada. Here is where Jamaican cuisine collides with Italian, and Hungarian with Thai. Where an elderly couple speaking Portuguese can rub shoulders with their Mandarin-speaking peers. Where students sip kimchi soup and families share latkes.

It is also where the President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Joachim Gauck, sat down with local community leaders and immigration experts for a discussion on Canada’s immigration system. Ratna Omidvar, a Torontonian and executive director of the Global Diversity Exchange, led the discussion between the German and Canadian delegations at St. Stephen’s Community House in the heart of the Market.

Gauck stopped in Toronto during a state visit in September to learn about Canada’s experiences with immigration and inclusion. Germany, he said, had taken its “first steps in recent years to create an open-minded society.” He implied there is still much to learn.

The Germany-Canada Roundtable

The group sat down at a roundtable in the gymnasium inside St. Stephen’s. Germans across from Canadians, and reporters taking notes on the side. Here is a recap of the discussion, led by questions from the German Delegation:

When it comes to immigration and integration what works in Canada and why?

There is a multi-stakeholder approach at work in Canada. Governments, labour, businesses, and nonprofits have a role in immigrant integration and inclusion. Particularly of note compared to other countries is that Canadian business leaders articulate the economic benefits of immigration – and do so quite forcefully. Representing the private sector voice at the table, Zabeen Hirji, chief human resources officer with the Royal Bank of Canada, explained that inclusion is not just a social issue, it’s an economic issue. Her company, the largest in Canada, is a leader in recognizing diversity as a source of growth and innovation. RBC backs its words with deliberate policies to hire and promote diverse employees, and to reach the newcomer market with products and services that respond to their needs.

The Canadian private sector has more than one reason to make the case for inclusion. “It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do,” said Ms. Hirji. “Diversity and inclusion have a role in driving productivity, innovation and economic growth. At RBC, we believe to serve the market we must hire the market. So we leverage the diversity of our workforce as an asset that is a competitive advantage in the marketplace.” She added that inclusion “is about business success, about preserving our quality of life, and about nation building.”

What does multiculturalism really mean for Canadians – what is its lived expression? What aspects of our multiculturalism are transportable to Germany?

Multiculturalism in Canada is an expression on the streets, it’s an official policy, and it’s a public philosophy, explained Phil Triadafilopoulos, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto. It is something that Canadians both accept and celebrate. Mr. Triadafilopoulos recalled a telling moment in recent years, when someone put a question to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, asking him to comment on multiculturalism. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel had just made her stunning remark that multiculturalism, multikulti, had “utterly failed.” That language would be political suicide in Canada. Showing the divide in tone between Germany and Canada, Mr. Harper responded of his Conservative government, “we favour multiculturalism.” The Prime Minister continued that immigrants “first and foremost want to belong to this country … they also at the same time will change our country.”

The Canadian education system is one vital space in promoting multicultural identity and values. Schools have trained specialists to teach English as a second language. They have rigid policies against discrimination and racism. They receive provincially-funded training and retraining on openness and accommodation. As someone who grew up in an immigrant household, Mr. Triadafilopoulos explained the personal impact of learning from public school teachers that “you’re just as Canadian as anyone else.” This sense of belonging is the lived expression of multiculturalism. It doesn’t matter what you look like or what accent you have. From the Prime Minister down to teachers, the expectation is that immigrants are Canadians.

What observations can be drawn about the role of citizenship in furthering integration and inclusion in Canada?

Immigrant or refugee, Canada sees its newcomers as future citizens, explained Harald Bauder, academic director of the Ryerson Centre for Immigration and Settlement. The assumption is not that people are waiting for economic or political situations to get better at home in order to return. “The expectation is that immigrants and refugees become Canadian – that Canada is their new home and that they become one of us,” said Mr. Bauder. In Canada, newcomers can apply for citizenship after three years of residency (although this will increase to four years in 2015).

“Extending the prospect of citizenship to newcomers has been an important aspect of Canada’s ‘warmth of welcome’, its Willkommenskultur,” Mr. Bauder explained. “This warmth of welcome and especially the prospect of citizenship has made Canada a very attractive destination for migrants from around the globe.” The path to citizenship is both accessible and a clearly stated policy.

An important result of the mindset that immigrants are future citizens, is a significant investment in the immediate services needed by newcomers like education, language skills, and job training.

While immigration is a national construct, settlement and integration are uniquely local experiences. What are the priority conditions for local integration? What role do local services play in this context?

The priority conditions for local integration are employment, affordable housing, and community support, said Bill Sinclair, associate executive director of St. Stephen’s. On the topic of community support, Sinclair gave examples of programming run from St. Stephen’s, a community-based social service agency. He highlighted childcare, activities for the elderly, and sport and other activities for teens after school. Greater than the individual programs is the resulting whole: Access to community support for the entire family.

How is language in Canada evolving to reflect evolving values?

Language is not only an indicator of changing times, it’s an important tool to signal progressive ideas – not where we are, but where we’re going. Language can change mindsets, and that’s how a culture evolves. Ms. Hirji used the changing lexicon in her own work to illustrate. For example, she favours dropping the phrase “tolerant society” because of its negative connotation (as well as dictionary definition of “tolerate”) that the unpleasant subject is being endured, even withstood. Instead, we describe ourselves as an “inclusive society.” Another example is to move away from “foreign” to “international,” a particularly important shift in the business world. Companies used to call it foreign job experience, or foreign education, but there’s a connotation to that. On the other hand, international job experience or education becomes an asset.

What is not working so well, and why?

Ms. Omidvar posed this question to the Canadian group, reminding the German delegation that Canadians are the first to point out faults in the system.

For one, recent years have seen a trend in Canada of increasing the number of temporary immigrants under programs that are reminiscent of Germany’s guest workers program, Gastarbeiterprogramm, of the 1950s to 1970s. “Canada seems to have learned a disturbing lesson from Germany,” said Mr. Bauder. “Unlike Germany, where Gastarbeiter acquired the right to stay, permitting them to become de-facto immigrants, Canada is making sure that its temporary foreign workers never acquire the right to stay in Canada.” He explained that only a small number of temporary foreign workers are able to access permanent residence, and that the criteria “mainly revolve around the migrants’ economic utility to Canada.”

Another problem is that far too many immigrants are unemployed or underemployed. “The jobs they’re getting are below their qualifications and they’re stuck,” said Mr. Sinclair. “They’re not catching up.” Others echoed this remark. Many countries including Germany tend to think of attracting high-skilled immigrants as a solution unto itself, but as conditions in Canada show, problems do arise from this policy. High-skilled immigrants are facing a tough time finding employment, some would say even more so than low-skilled immigrants. “It’s our paradox,” said Mr. Triadafilopoulos. Relative to Canada’s history, “today we have the smartest group of immigrants but the worst labour market integration.” Ms. Hirji attributed one level of the problem to systemic barriers to immigrant employment, like the informal job requirement that applicants have “Canadian experience” which devalues relevant work experience abroad.

The last word

For all its individual failures, as a whole, the Canadian immigration and settlement system is a model of success. “In the short term, there are growing pains,” said Ms. Omidvar. “But in the long term, it works.” Closing the discussion, President Gauck agreed.

“We wish that Germany had your problems,” he said. “We want your open-mindedness [for] the Germany my grandchildren will live in.”

Discovering Kensington Market

Tracing the footsteps of different immigrant communities that have transformed Kensington Market, Ms. Omidvar led President Gauck and his delegation through the bustling streets of shops and colourful awnings in one of Toronto’s oldest and most diverse open air markets before sitting down to the roundtable.

Kensington Market is built on the spirit of immigrant settlement, local entrepreneurship, and inclusion. In the early 1900s, Toronto’s Eastern European Jewish community settled into Kensington Market, and it became known as the “Jewish Market” before waves of immigrants from Portugal, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, Asia, and Latin America followed. From Kosher butchers to Portuguese fish markets to Latin America street vendors, the Market continues to thrive today as a microcosm of multicultural Toronto.

There are many reasons why waves of immigrants succeeded in Kensington Market. Located in the heart of downtown Toronto, newcomer residents had direct access to the density of commercial activity, affordable housing, childcare, and public transportation. The Market’s mixed land use of residential and commercial space created an informal economy, allowing working class immigrants to open shop, save, invest, eventually move out, and make room for the next group of newcomers.

An immigrant herself, Ms. Omidvar said “My family and I have lived and experienced these stories – stories that are grounded in common experiences of arrival, endurance and redemption. And our loyalty, commitment and appreciation for this country is boundless.“

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