Discussion Group, Our tower of babel

Andrew Faiz
The Next City
December 21, 1997

THE POOR AND THE IMMIGRANT HAVE RUINED THIS COUNTRY. Forty years ago, Canada was the apotheosis of community spirit. Folks liked one another, they knew one another, they looked after one another. Women could walk at night without being accosted by some drug-addled crazy, and children could play out on the street without being abducted by some oversexed lunatic. Then came the immigrants and the welfare people, and next thing you knew you had to wait for a raging flood to nearly devastate a whole province to witness any community spirit at all.

Canada used to be one big community with foreigners on the side. It took them a while to understand how things worked, but when they did they were welcome to join right in. Then we got multiculturalism, and the foreigners could have their own community without joining in. Things began to splinter off then. Not just a Pakistani community, for example, but Pakistani Anglican Lahoris, or Sunni Karachites. The titles of self-identification became more and more specific. Identity politics ruled the day.

The spirit of community is the joining together of personal identities into a richer communal body. Ecological communities thrive on diversity, each life depending on the other for survival. Canadians have moved in the opposite direction. I have a friend whose family came from Greece about the time mine arrived from Pakistan. He grew up here as I did. His mother speaks no English. She doesn’t need it to live in this country. Many consider this a triumph of multiculturalism. I believe it a victory of isolationism, the anathema of community. As her neighborhood changes, as it becomes less Greek, I see the frustrated loneliness on her face.

We have forgotten the communal in community and made it synonymous with insularity. While the country became irrevocably pigmented, Canadians responded by turning the diverse into the divisive.

The rot was already visible (albeit in retrospect) when I arrived in this country a quarter century ago. My family moved into Flemingdon Park, a Toronto neighborhood that has been the first home for many immigrants to Canada in the past three decades. It is a square mile, currently housing 25,000 people from an estimated 100 countries, speaking up to 80 different languages or dialects. The unemployment rate is 25 per cent, and family income ranges from six figures down to nothing. It has approximately 700 subsidized rental units, and many residents receive some form of government subsidy. This neighborhood has witnessed several attempts over the years to develop a traditional community sensibility despite its diverse components. The struggles witnessed here — to establish a future, to begin new lives, and to settle children as middle-class Canadians — illustrate the search for, and the loss of, community in this country.

MACKLIN HANCOCK DESIGNED FLEMINGDON PARK AFTER DESIGNING Don Mills — the Canadian epitome of a planned community — for industrialist E. P. Taylor. Flemingdon was to be a bonsai Don Mills — a third of the population on a quarter of the land, with all the amenities of family life.

The Fleming Estate, a farm in the 1940s that lay squarely inside the budding metropolis of Toronto, was sandwiched by several tributaries of the Don River. The Don Valley Parkway skirted the estate, giving residents of the proposed development easy access to the centre and outskirts of the city and to the wilds of the Don River Valley.

By all accounts, Flemingdon was the perfect community in the early 1960s. With rents ranging from $110 to $180 a month, office workers could live nearby. The residents were professionals and semiprofessionals, middle class, and culturally homogenous. The industrial part of the development was home to the international offices of Bata, along with the Japanese-Canadian Cultural Centre, Shell, Oxford University Press, A. C. Nielsen, IBM, and many others. The CBC planned to build its Radio and Television City on 33 acres in the northeast corner.

Church and school were at the centre of Hancock’s design. Husband worked, wife stayed at home. Green space was everywhere, around the apartment buildings, in and through the garden courts, beside and under the main roads. It was a complete small town inside Metropolitan Toronto.

Flemingdon was safe and secure, but for only one reason: The residents were neither immigrant (certainly not visibly) nor poor. As soon as the complexion and economics of the neighborhood changed, so did its claim to community. Those who lived through the changing times, from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, swear a different universe supplanted the same plot of land.

Those people

FLEMINGDON’S DEVELOPER WENT BANKRUPT IN THE MID-1960S. The Reichmann family bought the development, aggressively developed its commercial sites, and sold off parcels, including a set of handsome Georgian row houses, to the Ontario Housing Corporation, the public housing authority.

Slowly, the producers, the professionals, the middle class moved out. The CBC thought the better of moving in. The Reichmanns moved on to downtown Toronto, Manhattan, and later London. After the poor arrived, it was only a matter of course that the immigrants should join them. When Idi Amin expelled South Asians in the early 1970s, Flemingdon Park changed forever. From 1972 on, came an endless wave of Ismaili East Africans, Vietnamese, Russian Jews, Middle Easterners, Tamils, Somalis, Serbo-Croatians, and so on.

Native-born, white-skinned families kept moving out, and with their departure, Canadian traditions were cast aside, homogeneity was erased, the church sited by Macklin Hancock sat lonely on its plot. The Muslim service in a school auditorium attracted as many worshippers on a Friday night as the Catholic service on a Sunday morning, the latter mostly filled by South-East Asians until Eastern European faces could be spotted in the early 1990s. A Pentecostal congregation of mostly island blacks has also thrived. But the Anglicans never got a foothold in the neighborhood, and the Presbyterian Church has struggled on the edge for years, scraping together a motley collection of Protestants under the banner of Community Church.

The public housing complex withered under government administration. The ravine pedestrian paths were not completed. The garden courts became nightly homes for loitering gangs. The individualized parking garages became a boon to drug dealers — buyers and sellers could slip underground to do their business away from scrutinizing eyes. Crack houses were popular for a while.

The Georgian houses, once charmingly close to one another, now seemed cramped. Conflicting musical tastes drove neighbors to fight. In the apartment buildings, food smells invaded the hallways. Curries, fish, and other foods choked buildings in winter, when the cold discouraged open windows, and in the summer, when the air was still and humid. Building superintendents tried placing people of the same heritage on the same floor — a game effort that rarely worked. The much vaunted diversity — the multicultural fabric that Canadians love to boast about — started to fray around the edges, wear thin, and tear.

The Flemingdon newspaper took Macklin Hancock to task for having sanitized the community. “Could Flemingdon Park ever have been a truly planned community?” it wrote in the late 1970s. “It seems almost humorous that in the early 1960s, apartments were being built specifically for singles and childless married couples. . . . Didn’t anyone even think about how many different racial groups would become an increasing part of Metro’s mosaic?”

MY FAMILY ARRIVED IN 1971, JUST BEFORE THE IMMIGRANT WAVES. The local leaders, movers, and shakers were all of British descent (i.e., white), which was just fine by us. My parents had more pressing needs than community development. They had to learn how to negotiate public transportation, get their diplomas assessed and their children schooled. There was much to learn.

Our fellow Flemingdonians were those left behind in the rush of exiting professionals. Many were single moms. Most were young middle-class families who would soon move out to buy homes in the burgeoning suburbs outside the city. In the meantime, however, they pushed and prodded their local politicians and businesses. They formed a community council and capitalized on the growing population to get political clout.

To their mind, Flemingdon was still raw. It needed much more. The population of 14,000 (the size of an average Canadian town) must have its own health centre, legal aid, social services. Plus, soccer, hockey, bus route, and so on. They brought all of these concerns to the community council to give one voice to each claim and won every demand. At the same time, the Catholic priest had a wild vision of a multimedia centre and gathering place based on Emil Radok’s Living Library in the Czech pavilion at Expo 67. His vision ignited the community council, and the Resource Centre, as it would be called, became the central metaphor for Flemingdon’s community efforts. It was to be a one-stop service centre, where legal aid, medical and other social agencies would be housed, along with a stage, a screen, the latest in media equipment, a swimming pool, a gymnasium, a library, a community-run store, lots of meeting rooms, and a senior citizens home. According to Contact, the neighborhood’s mimeographed newsletter which grew into a biweekly newspaper, the Resource Centre would be the castle for the Kingdom of Flemingdon Park.

Those were exciting times. We had street dances, Dominion Day parades, Santa Claus drives, an invigorating community council. The village had been brought to the city; personal roles determined by family and culture were as active and important as the public roles called for by community participation. We had, in short, a spirit of community that transcended race and religion.

Race communities

IN THESE EFFORTS, FLEMINGDON PARK’S STORY PARALLELS that of many other neighborhoods, towns, and cities across Canada. The 1970s saw enormous wealth and change. Buildings went up, and social service agencies dug in. We had the money to pay for our ideals, but the ideals were softheaded.

The Resource Centre did not become a place of dreams. It was a building with a pool, a library, and a seniors home. It fell under the pall of bureaucratic tight-fistedness. It came at the cost of allowing more building permits to the developer, foisting more towers on the already dense neighborhood.

The invigorating community council ultimately became exhausting. The hockey program died when a board member absconded with the funds; Flemingdon has had no hockey since. Nobody had the energy to start again. It was fought for once, and it failed.

Other efforts also fizzled. One of the most famous was the Tea Party project. Neighbors, mostly moms, walked around the garden courts in the evenings, pretending to have tea and biscuits. They got in the way of the drug pushers and scared away the buyers, without being overtly rude or abrasive. But the benefits of these nightly teas were not discernable and quick; the teas only lasted a few months. Real life got in the way, schedules were difficult to manage, people got bored with the effort. The pushers stayed, the tea parties moved on.

People often confuse community with causes. But causes come and go; they ignite people but rarely unite them. Within a few years of the Resource Centre’s dedication, the community council and Contact faded away. They had led the fight for Flemingdon Park, but they comprised overworked volunteers. One woman, who worked on both projects, spent four nights and half a weekend on community work for several years. She dropped out due to sheer exhaustion as did many of her fellows.

The community council and Contact had tried to make everybody feel special, the kind of special championed in a series of articles in Contact. For example, “Racism: The Contribution of East Indians. Third in a Series” gushed about the contribution of subcontinentals to Canada, lamenting that they are often overlooked because they are “visible minorities,” and lauding them for being educated, English speaking, professionals, and part of this country’s national dream since the 1870s.

These race-based mantras — sadly, they remain legion in magazines, newspapers, radio, and television across this country — are inherently racist, their effort to bolster the claim of a race to Canadian status is ultimately condescending. They touch all of our liberal clichés and end up packeting people. “Hi, as a Pakistani could you please give me the Pakistani perspective on being a Pakistani in a non-Pakistani country like Canada?” It’s a closed question; it puts the focus only on race. It sounds like community, but it stinks of segregation.

In trying to make everybody feel special, the community council and Contact acted from a good heart and a soft head. This effort was not necessary. The newcomers were visible in many of the decisions made in Flemingdon by the late 1970s.

Their presence often led to odd alliances. The Presbyterian minister received the Ismaili Muslims’ support when he tried to convince the community council to discourage hockey games and practices on Sunday mornings. Conversely, the Ismailis’ bid for their own legal aid clinic failed — amid bitter calls of racism from both sides — in favor of one from the community council. Alliances grew from greater issues of spirituality and community good, while differences were often along racial lines.

This segregation grew thicker in time. In hindsight, the Tea Party project became a black effort against black drug dealers, led by a charismatic black man who eschewed the support of non-black (and non-born-again Christian) agencies and groups. A lot of the unrest in public housing today revolves around race: blacks v. the police or black v. white. Often, each racial group feels victimized by the other.

By highlighting race, by holding it up as important, the residents of Flemingdon ultimately reduced all issues to race. As the residents grew tired, they handed more and more authority to professionals, eliminating any hope of developing community spirit.

SOCIAL SERVICE AGENCIES HAVE FORGOTTEN HOW TO FIGHT for justice; they now fight for funding. This didn’t happen overnight. It has taken three decades of sucking off the public teat. On the surface, the workers will argue that they are defending principles of universality and human development. In fact, they are defending their own jobs.

I don’t say this lightly. I have worked as a volunteer, as a board member and chair for a variety of agencies in Flemingdon Park. Though I don’t deny that some good and needed work is being done, or that Flemingdon, or Canada, lack the truly disadvantaged, facts have been twisted to fit a theory.

Most immigrants are educated and experienced. They often lack English skills but might speak several other languages and hold several degrees. They are demanding and focused. They don’t want to be pitied and don’t necessarily want to be in Canada, though they will grudgingly acknowledge it’s better than the country they left. What they lack is exactly what my parents lacked three decades ago: a sense of the local customs, jargons, and bureaucracies. They are alone in an ocean of strangers.

Theories of disempowerment produce a negative and condescending process. John McKnight, the famous community theorist, calls that process “needs assessment” and argues against it. He tells the story of the village drunk who happens to be a great electrician when sober. Needs assessment sees him only as a drunk instead of as a man of skill and talent. McKnight argues that the focus should be on the man’s strengths and abilities. If he is allowed to be an electrician more often, he will be sober more often, thereby building confidence and self-worth. Focusing on his illness convinces the man he is worthless.

Needs assessment has dominated Flemingdon for many years. The immigrant and the poor have been convinced that they are immigrant and poor, dependent upon the aid of social workers for entry into society. Agencies pushed them into their own ethnic corners to then save them. Each agency has its little packet of people, each claims to be serving the community, each has its own political philosophy and theory of development. Overall services are duplicated and triplicated, meaningful communication among agencies is negligible, many distrust one another’s theoretical approaches. Flemingdon’s 500 volunteers are split willy-nilly. It’s an absolute mess of splinter groups. This is our new tower of Babel: a cacophony of communities. Government sources pour hundreds of thousands of dollars annually into various service agencies that exist to protect themselves in the name of their needy constituents.

My family was lucky when we came to Canada. We didn’t know we were disenfranchised or disempowered. We were lucky to have the guidance of our church, school, work and the friends who had emigrated here earlier. All of these and others were responsible for our first residence, car, winter clothes, furniture, and television.

The immigrant today is not as lucky. Professional community workers have taken on the role of community council. All decisions are from the top down — the apex being the pet development theory, the residents now the subjects at the bottom. In the 1970s, the residents determined their own needs — more bus stops, more stop signs, and so on. Now they are told what they need.

Spring socials

COMMUNITY IS NOTHING MORE THAN THE ANTIDOTE TO isolation. Stuck on prairie farms for six months of winter, folks need to have a dance, a social in the spring. They need to help one another over the summer, patch some roofs, raise a barn or two, harvest the crop. Community is an economic necessity and an emotional one. Events like these form the nostalgia we feel about community. Somehow or other, when it comes to city communities, we fail to recognize the obvious. We can’t see past race.

If this is a racist country then I’ve somehow missed it. Other than being called Paki several dozen times on the street and being spoken to inappropriately by cops on a few occasions (and having one potential white mom-in-law rant at her daughter about maintaining ethnic purity) I have not tasted racism. I don’t believe I’ve lost a job or gained one, or lost a friend or partner due to my pigment and accent. When I challenge other pigmented folk on this point they agree to a degree. Yet it is comfortable for many immigrants, and many non-immigrants, too, to believe this is a racist country; it makes Canada more like America.

But, it’s not racism we suffer, it’s laziness. We have prettified race and not dealt with it. We call it multiculturalism or mosaic, but these are only cute and meaningless words. It is really really tough to live next door to somebody who listens to Madhuri Dixit every night and makes curried fish often. The sounds and the smells can drive you insane. This is the real multicultural experience — not some safe ethnic restaurant or occasional folk dance festival.

Hassan Dualeh, a Flemingdon resident, believes we are tearing ourselves apart: “The way multiculturalism is here, you can have your own language, you can have your own culture, you can have your own religion, you can have your own community. But the name multiculturalism doesn’t mean that. The name should mean that the different language, the different culture they have to share together become one unit. They have to become friends, they have to integrate, they have to become one group of society. But it is not going to happen.”

Dualeh was a student in Somalia when his brother was executed. He fled to Canada, having married his brother’s wife, to seek asylum. He escaped because others were able to convince the authorities that he was just a dumb kid who didn’t know anything about politics. His one goal in Canada was to complete the geology degree he would never be allowed to finish in Somalia. He’s yet to reach that goal. Instead he’s studied computers, worked as a laborer, worked in a video store, a financial institution, and as a community worker.

A gregarious man with a bum foot, he limps his way through Flemingdon. He has lost one life already, his life in Somalia. He lost it to sectarian tensions. He sees those same forces at work in Canada. Many other multicults in Flemingdon echo his observations. Djordje Sredojevic was a sociologist in Croatia. “Here people have community, and they have country, but they do not have society.” He was born a Serb and lived and worked in Croatia. He was confused when ethnic violence broke out in his birthland. He had married a Croatian woman — it was all commonplace. In suggesting we have no society he refers to the lack of connection. We are content, it seems, to hide inside our own little communities. We don’t even see the need for a spring social.

That spring social, metaphorically, is all we need. In Flemingdon it can be witnessed in glimpses. One agency effort called Determinants of Health has attempted to address people’s isolation. Its participation rate is minuscule, and the successes modest. It has spawned a political advocacy committee, which has organized candidate debates for recent federal and provincial elections and town halls for local issues. The most fascinating thing about the participants (who easily represent the demographics) is not that they feel empowered by their actions but that they were so ready for them. Most immigrants tend to be politically minded because politics played a huge part in their decision to come to Canada. These residents don’t speak from the point of view of Somalis or Serbo-Croatians but as citizens of Canada. Nobody had asked them to use that particular voice before.

In this regard, John McKnight rings true. Do not ask people what their problems are, ask them for their solutions, their ideas, their strong backs and minds. This oddly enough has not been done in Flemingdon for decades. Nobody asked the immigrant and the poor how they would like to live in this country. When asked, they rose to the challenge. One agency sponsored an economic development program. A hundred people participated. When funding ran out, some of the participants went off on their own to learn about business plans. They want the push, the opportunity, not the pity and the theory.

Learning Cantonese

WHAT IS COMMUNITY? THE DICTIONARY MAINTAINS it is about homogeneity. I have seen community at work in my little neighborhood. I have seen it rise above petty issues of race and ethnicity to higher planes of social action and citizenship. Community is getting involved with your neighbors. It all sounds like a Sesame Street message, I know, but it’s time we learned the lesson.

It is not my intention to denigrate ethnicity or make light of its importance in the lives of individuals and families. I myself am proud of my heritage and curious about the future of my birth country. But that was then, and this is now. Roots grow only where the feet are, and my feet are in Canada. I don’t see the need for publicly funded ethnic programs. And I certainly don’t recognize the need for race-inspired policies and processes.

Hassan Dualeh and Djordje Sredojevic both agree on one more point: They watch their children exceed them in becoming Canadian. Dualeh says, “In my house I see my children, and they play with children and they are Tamil, or Serbo-Croatian, or Pakistan. And I say, yes. They are doing it.” Sredojevic jokingly laments that his son speaks a better English. The son trades sports cards, something the father does not understand. But the parents do understand that their children are breaking, naturally and casually, through the most horrendous of boundaries. They don’t start out sharing a common language but they end up doing so. They share a common experience and battlefield (school). They are affected by charm, looks, and coolness — not race. They make the most of their opportunities to live comfortably in two or more cultures simultaneously.

Beverly Chase-Dunawa, another resident, has a son about to enter postsecondary education and another in kindergarten. The youngest has a friend who teaches him Greek. This is a thing of real pride for the boy. He’s learning another language. The older boy has a Chinese girlfriend. His mother swears she’ll learn Cantonese if there is ever issue from this union. Of her boys, Mrs. Chase-Dunawa says, “I don’t know if you ever lose your cultural heritage, especially here in Toronto. I think Toronto offers a unique blend of keeping another heritage and becoming Canadian. The kids are all different, but in actual fact they are all Canadian.”

She was born in Barbados, has a strong connection to it, but was raised in small town Quebec. Her sons have a feeling for their island roots. Her experiences of this country are occasionally dotted but generally benign, encouraging, and peaceful. She had a comfortable experience growing up in two cultures — the parents were bright and the country was kind. As an adult, she is ready to take her role in among the citizens. She’s not alone.

We have thought of community for too long as only a function of ethnicity. It’s past time to lose that notion. We need to encourage more resident-based community councils and local newsletters. We need fewer agency representatives. We must stop funding communities of race, ethnicity, pigment, or class. Like the kids, we should have the more important criteria of coolness, neat hair, and bright ideas. We need models of community based on citizenship, not race.

If we don’t do these things, then the immigrant and the poor really will ruin this country. And they’ll do so with the help, funding, and blessing of the citizens. The distinction is not casual. The immigrant and the poor are disempowered and disenfranchised — opposite of the rest of us who are empowered and enfranchised citizens. We give the immigrant and the poor our subsidized pity. In return they make us fancy meals and give us a nice native dance.

It doesn’t have to be so, we didn’t need to construct for them a community of Babel. It’s well time we tore down those tower walls.

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