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Toronto is unmatched for its sense of community


Immigrants account for nearly half of Toronto’s population.

In 2001, Statistics Canada counted 135 visible minority neighbourhoods in Toronto. The numbers have only grown since.

Award-winning journalist Doug Saunders coined the term ‘arrival city’ to unite places on the edge of our cities that function to “propel people into the core life of the city and to send support back to the next wave of arrivals”.

In his book, Arrival City, Saunders, the London-based European Bureau chief of The Globe and Mail, describes Thorncliffe Park in Toronto as a thriving, successful arrival city.

He writes about buildings that have been taken over by Indians and Pakistanis, “replicating whole villages in the vertical plane”.

It is a neighbourhood that offers high quality educational programs.

“I know people who send their kids to posh schools in other parts of Toronto, but to computer programs in Thorncliffe Park,” he says.

Jehad Aliweiwi, the executive director of Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office (TNO), is quoted in Arrival City as saying the neighbourhood is morphing from a transient zone to one where people want to be.

This is not a place where people feel stuck. It’s a place where they feel comfortable. You don’t just pass through it, you go to it.

Which is pretty much what Aliweiwi had told Desi News, our sister publication, in 2008: “Thorncliffe is unmatched for its sense of community.”

Historically, Thorncliffe used to be a springboard to better places. New immigrants would be attracted to the cheap housing, but when they found jobs and felt more settled, they’d move. However now, people are laying anchor in the neighborhood. And that’s when rents now are no longer cheap and are on par with rents elsewhere.

Originally from Palestine, Aliweiwi had said, “The joy and familiarity I feel here is incomparable. It is a vital neighborhood.”

The neighbourhood boasts the highest concentration of new arrivals in the country. The Thorncliffe Park Elementary Public School is North America’s largest public school.

TNO’s clients come from all ethnic backgrounds including European and Filipino, but the highest concentration is of South Asians, and Afghans make up the fastest growing group.

East York Town Centre, Iqbal Halal Foods...they all add to the community feel. Many different languages may be spoken here, but there’s a commonality of food, culture, social engagement and cohesion.

Iqbal Halal Foods, interestingly, finds mention in Arrival City as well: Iqbal’s is a comfort. The heavy sacks of rice and grain on the floor and the racks of raw spices in the big fluorescent-lit shop remind Adinah of home.

The essence of integration – whether it happens or it doesn’t – depends largely on how a neighbourhood develops, says Aliweiwi, echoing the celebrated urbanist and activist Jane Jacobs. Jacobs believed that compact, dense and diverse neighbourhoods help knit people into a strong, connected and resourceful community.

“When we are in Thorncliffe, we feel we are in Pakistan or Afghanistan, but when we go downtown, we are in Canada,” Maryam says in Arrival City.

“Thorncliffe Park Drive is like a lot of places back home,” said Aliweiwi. “Rohinton Mistry, in fact, compared the cluster of buildings to similar clusters in Mumbai. It’s accessible, clean, contained and safe. Walking around at night, it reminds me of home, the way people use public spaces. You will see people gathered on the sidewalks with their blankets, coffee mugs in hand, talking, exchanging views.”

Saunders writes about the major survey of Thorncliffe Park residents by US and Canadian geographers that found an almost unanimous high degree of satisfaction among its residents.

In Thorncliffe Park there was evidence of the good segregation of the urban village. A spirit of hope provided a basis for building local social capital. Immigrant careers were launched. Integration trajectories bore promise, and the sense of citizenship and belonging became more hopeful.

TNO, funded by the government and the United Way, provides newcomer support services including language training and help in finding employment; family and child support; women’s groups and an Ontario Early Years Program. It runs programs for youth with space to do their homework; provides computers and recreational facilities.
In 2007, a group of community volunteers, with the assistance of the Institute of Canadian Citizenship (ICC), formed the Thorncliffe Park Citizenship Committee, an organization dedicated to changing the way new Canadians are welcomed through community citizenship ceremonies. They found a brand new way of welcoming new Canadians that takes concepts like “accommodation” and “integration” and flips them on their head.

The Committee’s citizenship ceremonies bring together new and established Canadians to celebrate the achievement of becoming a Canadian citizen.

“A new Canadian’s first day should be filled with warmth, new friends and pride,” said ICC founding co-chair and former governor general Adrienne Clark-son.

“It’s surprising how much Canadians share and can discover they have in common.”

“The citizenship ceremony is an opportunity for new Canadians to interact with established Canadians. An opportunity to feel that they could also be recipients of the nation’s highest honour, Order of Canada, that they could also run for public office.”

Posted: Nov 14, 2010

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