“Ghetto” is such an evocative word. It brings to mind an urban setting with slum-like conditions, populated by people on the margins of society. First used to describe living conditions for Jews in 13th century Morocco, more recently it has been associated mainly with blacks in the Harlem and South Bronx boroughs of New York.
Then there is “ghettoization,” which has come to be convenient short hand for people lamenting the lack of social and economic integration of new immigrants in Canada. The term “visible minority” – a Canadian invention – may have also contributed to the entrenching of this idea in popular imagination.
But, it’s not true.
Before we look at two separate recent studies that have looked at this issue, it would be worthwhile to review some of the recent mentions of “ghettos” or the slightly less pejorative “ethnic enclaves” and the contexts in which they have been used. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney was recently quoted as telling Maclean’s that, “What we don’t want to end up with is a kind of social fracturing and so-called ethnic enclaves that one sees in parts of western Europe.”
He may have been referring to the banlieus in Paris that became infamous for fomenting violence during the riots in2005. The confluence of poverty and social marginalization among immigrants in these suburbs is believed to have contributed to the violence that swept the European city in the fall of that year. More recently, tensions between newcomers in the Harris Park suburb of Sydney, Australia, is said to have provoked serial attacks on international students from India.
The insinuation is that if ethnic groups live in the same neighbourhood, they become violence prone, besides excluding themselves from the rest of Canadian society. Mr. Kenney insists that his department wants to make sure none of this happens in Canada. “[W]e don’t want to wake up sometime 15 years from now and find that we have allowed a similar situation to develop.” Given the freedom that all Canadians have to live and buy a house anywhere in the country, it’s hard to see how the government could actually prevent the formation of ethnic enclaves.
But, is there a problem in the first place from a sociological perspective or are we fretting over a myth? A recent edition of Canada Plan, published by the Canadian Institute of Planners, includes two separate research papers by academics Kamal Dib, Bharathi Sriraman and Brian K. Ray. In summary, they report that “there is little real and scientific evidence of ghettoization in Canada.” Even in areas of immigrant concentration, many different ethnic groups are represented, including both low and middle-income households. Besides, the researchers found, “Research indicates that high levels of segregation … [does] not necessarily equate with high levels of social exclusion.”
That’s not to say that Canada’s gateway cities of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal do not have neighbourhoods that are predominantly populated by newcomers. For example, Côte-de-Neiges in Montreal, Mississauga and Brampton in Toronto, and Burnaby, Surrey and Richmond in Vancouver are new immigrant havens, but even here the academics do not find evidence of “ghettos.” As Mr. Ray says, knowing an address, subway stop or census tract number does not mean one can second-guess the racial identities of people who live there. Even as immigrants, they represent a motley group, not mono-ethnic communities.
What these studies do not address is “ghettoization” of minds and the larger question of how immigrants assimilate with their fellow Canadians. Neither government nor academics can show the way on how best to navigate this two-way street.