The New Melting Pot: Why Toronto Beats New York on Diversity

How did Toronto become a model for multiculturalism and diversity?

While New York City remains the quintessential melting pot, a more diverse city by certain metrics is the economic engine of our neighbor to the north: Toronto. Half of the region's 5 million-plus residents were born outside of Canada, but only 36 percent of New Yorkers were born abroad. Canada's biggest city is home to around half a million Chinese and South Asians and a quarter million Caribbeans.

While New York City has struggled to integrate its neighborhoods, ranking as the second most segregated American city, according to a study by Salon earlier this year, Toronto publicly embraces its multicultral image with the motto "Diversity our Strength." Of course, this isn't to say that everything's perfect. GOOD recently caught up with John Tory, a lawyer and politician in Ontario and the co-chair of the government-backed DiverseCity project, whose mission is to boost the representation of minorities and immigrants in leadership roles. We asked him what makes Toronto so diverse, and what's being done to foster increased equality and opportunity across racial backgrounds.

GOOD: What makes Toronto one of the most diverse cities on earth?

John Tory: Two factors: refugees and the immigration policy. As different conflicts and situations have risen around the world, Canada has been wiling to accept fairly significant numbers of refugees relative to our population, even if you go back even 40 years and start with the Vietnamese boat people.

Factor two: it’s just the nature of our immigration policy. That policy, if you go back to the ‘60s, was largely based on immigrants coming form Italy, Portugal, Greece, the United States, and the UK, so most of those people were European. They were white, and while some didn’t speak the language, a lot of their background was more Western. So there was an element of diversity in terms of language and nationality. But in the '60s and '70s there was a change to increasing our number of immigrants that came from South Asia, China, and the Caribbean.

GOOD: What’s a neighborhood that exemplifies Toronto’s diversity?

Tory: The patterning in Toronto has been different that in the U.S. A lot of the people who are newcomers here have gravitated to the suburbs rather than the inner city. The inner city tends to be inhabited by people living in condos and is gentrified, not to say that those people aren’t diverse as well.

Brampton is a neighborhood that’s hugely South Asian in its population, but there are still large parts of the community that have lived in the community for five, six, seven generations. The Indian and Pakistani communities, in particular, have taken up residence in huge numbers in that area and have integrated successfully with people whose ancestors go back to the time when Canada’s confederacy was put together.

Markham is another one of those towns where a traditionally white population was joined by literally hundreds of thousands of Chinese-Canadians. A lot of the Boy Scout organizations in markham are heavily populated by Chinese Canadians, which is just symbolic of what’s going on here. You’ve got these communites that have changed dramatically because of the influx.

With 50 percent of population foreign-born, I don’t think there’s a community that you could find anymore that isn’t integrated.

GOOD: Cities like Los Angeles and New York are extremely diverse but highly segregated. Is Toronto less segregated?

Tory: I would never want to be critical of what’s going in the U.S.; it’s our best friend and closest neighbor. We don’t have a lot of the history that perhaps makes these issues a bit more challenging for the United States. The lack of that history made it easier to start from scratch to absorb all kinds of different people. I think we’ve had a chance because our country’s so much younger—Canada was founded in 1867—and it made it easier for us to learn from some of the lessons the United States had.

GOOD: The city’s motto is “Diversity Our Strength.” What kind of official commitment to diversity does the city make?

Tory: The very existence of that slogan is a recognition of the fact that diversity has made the city much richer. Toronto was a city of 600,000 people not long ago and was seen as eternally boring. A lot of people would say that it was the arrival of all these diverse groups with their culture and their customs that made the city more interesting and more dynamic. It wasn’t just that they made for a bigger city and a bigger economy, it’s that they were diverse people that came with different approaches.

If you go beyond that and talk about the connections they bring from all the countries they came from: they are helping us open up new avenues of communication and trade with all those countries. I think people around the world see the fact that we’ve absorbed all these people peacefully and more or less successfully as a model for the world.

GOOD: What has made it easier for Canada to absorb immigrants with relative success compared to other countries?

Tory: Part of it is just the Canadian nature. Canadians welcoming, warm people. The birth of our country that came from two founding cultures, English and French, makes us aware of the fact that it takes more than one type of person to found a country.

Also, Canadians haven’t been afraid to let government institute programs that gave people not a handout, but a hand up to acclimatize themselves to living in Canada and working here. We believe it allows them to take on a fuller role in society.

GOOD: How does the DiverseCity project support diverse communities in Toronto?

Tory: The roots of it were in a shortcoming. I always say in my speeches that we don’t want to sound too self-congratulatory. Any analysis you make of leadership—whether its political, in corporations, or in non-profits—you see a relative lack of representation of visible minorities in proportion to the very substantial number they make up (45 percent of the population). Rather than just complain, we wanted to do something about it.

One of the projects we put together was a talent bank of people who had achieved success from minority groups, because often times organization have trouble finding people from diverse backgrounds. We’ve succeeded so far in facilitating more than 500 appointments to different agencies. They’ve found the candidate they were looking for thanks to this talent bank. It’s good for making people understand that we’re walking the walk here, not just talking the talk.

GOOD: What's the biggest challenge with this kind of work?

Tory: Inequality along racial lines is a challenge here. It has to do with the incomplete success of integrating skilled people, like engineers or pharmacists. We haven’t found perfection by any means of making sure skills are transferable in a timely basis, and they end up, for example, driving a taxi.

The facts speak for themselves—the answer is we’re not at ground zero, but we’re working a way at shining a light, we try to work with the groups in questions to help them find people to bolster the ranks.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user pshiryaev

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