Until recently, no summer sporting event in Toronto could hope to compete with the Blue Jays, the city's Major League Baseball club. But on a recent weekend, more than 100,000 Torontonians crowded on to Centre Island, a park just across the harbor from the Skydome, the Blue Jays' home, to witness the ancient Chinese sport of dragon-boat racing. This year, a record 104 teams--each with 20 paddlers--competed to represent Toronto at next year's world championship in Hong Kong. Fans snacked on such treats as dim sum, roasted pig, and dragon candy.
On the same weekend, the immigrant-inspired Festival Caravan drew to a close. The nine-day festival attracted more than 1 million visitors to 40 pavilions showcasing the cultures that make up Toronto--everything from calypso from Barbados to sumo wrestling from Japan. One performer, Vasco Dos Santos, kept several hundred people spellbound at a community center in Toronto's old Portuguese quarter as he reenacted the story of Geraldo Geraldes, the knight who took the city of Evora from the Moors in 1166. Dos Santos fled his homeland in 1972--36 hours after being warned that he would be arrested for his opposition to the then-military regime.
Welcome to what the U.N. has called the world's most multicultural city. New York and Los Angeles might dispute that title, but Toronto has unquestionably become a mecca for those seeking a fresh start. It's the top destination for people fleeing Hong Kong in advance of China's takeover in 1997. Since World War II, it has attracted more Italians--500,000, including offspring--than any city outside Italy. Today, nearly 40% of the 4 million people in the Toronto area weren't born in Canada.
"TOLERANT." What really sets Toronto apart, though, are its extraordinary efforts to welcome newcomers. "Immigrants see Canada as far more tolerant than the U.S. or Western Europe," says Don B. Williams, a sociologist who came from Jamaica in the 1950s. In Canada, "we have not tried to make all the immigrants conform to one identity," says Alan Marchment, vice-chairman of Festival Caravan and chairman of Wilshire Group Ltd., an investment company. It's also the law: The Multiculturalism Act, passed in 1988, "acknowledges the freedom of all members of Canadian society to preserve, enhance, and share their cultural heritage."
Thirty years ago, when the city was referred to as "Toronto the Good," it was regarded as a puritanical backwater. "Toronto was dull and lacking in color," recalls Marchment. He means that literally: Just 3% of the population was nonwhite. More than 60% had British roots. "Many small children had never even seen a black person," recalls Williams.
For longtime residents such as June Reid, the manager of BUSINESS WEEK's Toronto office, today's city seems almost unrecognizable. When Reid, who came from England with her parents after World War II, moved into the Rosedale neighborhood in 1956, it was a bastion of everything British--from cream teas to the Anglican church. Now her street has Estonians, South Africans, and Chinese, and she's in the minority.
Far more change lies ahead. The first big wave of immigrants came from Italy, Portugal, and other parts of Europe. By last year, only 16% of the 63,400 immigrants were European. Nearly two-thirds came from Asian nations, led by Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka. The Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto predicts that by 2001, 53% of the population will be nonwhite. In the 1980s, immigration helped make Toronto the third fastest-growing major metropolitan area in North America. In the next decade, it could jump from No.9 to No.7 among North American cities, says Tom McCormack, president of Strategic Projections Inc., which studies population trends.
Most of Toronto's new immigrants are remarkably enthusiastic. "I have been received very well," says Amy Ho, who arrived from Hong Kong in late 1988. She didn't consider going to the U.S. because, she says, "most people in Hong Kong have the impression that [it] is not as receptive to minority races." In Toronto, her 9-year-old daughter has been warmly welcomed at an elite girls' school that not long ago was almost lily-white. Toronto's Chinese community is now nearing 400,000, so Ho can do her banking in Chinese, shop at North America's largest Chinese shopping mall, and read three Chinese dailies.
Muyi-Deen Ajasa also felt welcome. Fleeing Nigeria's military regime, he was literally down to his last cent when he landed at the airport in 1991. He was directed to the Canadian African Newcomer Aid Center, a government-funded group that gave him "free food and a place to sleep." Later, Ajasa went to Skills for Change, an agency that helped him find work as an employment counselor to African immigrants.
Immigrants have helped widen Toronto's lead as Canada's top business center. Indian entrepreneurs are in abundance. Arthur D'Souza arrived in 1990 and has since established a thriving, nine-employee catering business. Hong Kong refugees have launched hundreds of businesses, including Semi-Tech Corp., which James H. Ting built into a $3 billion empire centered on sewing-machine maker Singer Co. Peter Munk came from Hungary to build Barrick Gold Corp. into the largest gold producer outside South Africa. Even the storied Maple Leafs hockey team is owned by an immigrant--Steve Stavro, a Greek whose fortune came from warehouse-style grocery stores.
Not all immigrants are overnight successes, of course. Unemployment among many groups runs far above the 9.6% national rate. One reason: Professionals trained in the Third World find it difficult to be accredited in Canada. Kowser Omer-Hashi, a 1986 refugee from Somalia, had extensive experience as a nurse, midwife, and hospital administrator, but Canadian health authorities refused to recognize her qualifications. "The doors were closed," she says. So she works as a health educator at a birth-control center. Still, gynecologists here seek her advice on how to treat victims of female circumcision, a common practice among Somalis.
The children of today's immigrants should have an easier time. At Parkdale Collegiate, a secondary school, most of the 920 students were born outside Canada. Vietnamese and Tamil are the most prominent of 40 native languages. "We are the Canada of the 21st century," says Principal Ken Hanson, who boasts that his hardworking students soon will lead Canadian society. He encourages them to keep up their native cultures. There's the Vietnamese/Canadian Club and a group for Tamil-speaking students. Every Friday, Muslim students use a prayer room set up by Hanson.
BIG BLUR? Critics fear rampant multiculturalism will blur Canada's identity. "Because we have failed to establish the limits of diversity, we find ourselves lost in a confusion of values," says author Neil Bissoondath, a West Indian immigrant of East Indian descent. Canada, he warns, will end up a "zoo of exoticism." But most Canadians agree with Sheila Finestone, Secretary of State for Multiculturalism: "You can be a staunch Canadian even if you still respect your heritage."
This is a natural progression for a country that began by accepting two coexisting cultures: French and English. The irony is that Canada is still bitterly divided over the role of French-speaking Quebec. That troubled history suggests there may be problems as Toronto continues to move from its British roots. But for now, its brave experiment in multiculturalism is working.
WILLIAM C. SYMONDS