Toronto and the promise of polyculturalism

[“Peace and Justice Files” columnist Skip Mendler left the United States on January 19, and is headed toward the Eastern Mediterranean to help with refugee assistance. He’s taking a few stops along the way, including Toronto.]

There were so many choices for dinner, just along that particular two-block stretch in Midtown Toronto, I hardly knew where to turn. Moroccan, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Chinese—I picked one more or less at random, a Chinese restaurant, and settled in with a Tsingtao and some delicious mushroom egg-drop soup. I knew I’d found a good spot when a gaggle of Chinese students came in for dinner. As I wrestled with some unfamiliar vegetable (gai lan, I found out later, is Chinese broccoli), they kept up a steady stream of laughter and conversation, delighting in each other’s company. The staff was also clearly pleased to have them there, as they brought out dish after dish for a family-style repast.

It occurred to me that these folks had probably not come to Canada to gain an appreciation of poutine and hockey—that is, not to be assimilated or digested into some generic one-size-fits-all kind of Canadian identity. (Though I did meet a Filipina server who came to Canada 30 years ago, and has indeed become a big hockey fan. Still doesn’t like poutine, though.) They also hadn’t come to take over and enforce their own cultural norms. Rather, they came to benefit from and contribute to a vibrant and varied society. I thought of the young Punjabi women I had talked to in Niagara Falls, who were studying nursing and early childhood education, and preparing to take their skills back home. I thought of the elderly Colombian gentleman I had met in a pub, a chef who had come to Montreal to work on his French before heading for culinary school in France—but who found love instead, and stayed put.

Toronto has a long-standing reputation as one of the most diverse and multicultural cities on the planet, and from what I’ve seen it’s well deserved. Conflicts here seem to be more class-based, as hard-driving developers (from many different nationalities) put pressure on neighborhoods to allow more and more high-priced luxury condo development. Ethnic communities, where they have developed, get nudged further out toward the suburbs.  

But they not only coexist, they interact and cross-fertilize.

As I understand it, there’s a difference between “multiculturalism”—where different cultural communities exist in close proximity, but within distinct borders, and claim certain physical and ideological spaces as their own—and what some call “polyculturalism,” where there is more openness towards hybridization, and a recognition that the overall community is in fact greater than the sum of its parts. So we can see things here like “pad thai burritos” and even a Japanese variant of poutine, French fries and cheese curds covered with Japanese curry gravy with seaweed and scallions.

One of the things that I am interested in exploring and learning more about during this trip is how such polycultural societies are created—and more importantly, maintained. It seems to me that learning to exist in multiple worlds, so to speak, to be a part of one’s communities of heritage but also part of something larger, could be an important skill for avoiding the kinds of intercultural conflicts that threaten to tear our country (and our planet) apart, literally at the seams.

And here’s what Toronto wants you to know: it can be done.

 

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