As newcomers to Canada increasingly settle in the suburbs, they drive economic growth locally, and even globally

Globe and Mail
October 31, 2008

Special to the Globe and Mail

Nineteen years ago, Sam Chiu, a young Hong Kong-born electrical engineer, started assembling computer components in the double-fronted garage of his standard-issue home on Lancashire Avenue, not far from the Toronto suburb of Markham’s town centre.

Mr. Chiu had immigrated to Canada in the mid-1980s, and seized an opportunity to set himself up as an entrepreneur. Within a few years, his firm, Samtack, was selling electronics to Future Shop Ltd.

In the late 1990s, he met Royson Ng and offered him a job in what, by then, had grown into a $20-million-a-year concern. The firm would soon break into Wal-Mart, which has “community” buyers who focus on certain ethnic groups.

Today, Mr. Ng is Samtack’s president as well as the head of the Markham-based Association of Chinese Canadian Entrepreneurs (ACCE). He came to Canada from Malaysia with a business degree. He initially settled in the working-class Toronto suburb of Scarborough but soon moved a few kilometres north, to Markham.

Samtack is still based in Markham, has a factory in China and belongs to a global conglomerate that trades on the Hong Kong stock exchange. Samtack’s annual sales: $150-million.

Such motherboards-to-riches tales aren’t uncommon in the high-tech environs of Markham.

Mr. Ng cites several more Markham immigrant success stories, such as King Tiger Technology, a decade-old electronics firm with a 100,000- square-foot facility, and Canada Computers, a 15-store chain that started in a Kingston, Ont., basement and is now headquartered in Markham.

Today, Markham has 900 high tech/life sciences companies, which together employ 31,000 people.

Markham’s economic success, especially in the tech field, is partly thanks to its lower-tax and growth policies, and the fact that it leveraged IBM’s locating there in the 1980s to attract other tech companies.

But a big factor in its business prosperity is the waves of immigrants – primarily east and south Asian – who settled in Markham and developed not only businesses but also networks to help each other succeed.

Diverse and busy

Markham is Canada’s most diverse municipality, with a population that is more than half immigrants, according to the latest Statistics Canada census figures from 2006.

And Markham’s story is not unique. The 2006 census figures show immigrants are increasingly moving to the suburban edges of Canada’s cities, rather than settling downtown.

“People come from literally every corner of the world,” says Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti.

A large portion of these immigrants came from Asia.

Chartered accountant Benedict Leung was born in Hong Kong and came to Canada as a teenager in 1980. He obtained a commerce degree from the University of Toronto and started an accounting practice in 1992. Today, his practice, Leung & Company, caters to hundreds of small Markham and Richmond Hill businesses run by Chinese-Canadians. He’s also president of the Richmond Hill Markham Chinese Business Association, which earlier this year helped orchestrate a trade mission to China for local businesses and the municipality.

That first wave of immigrants from Hong Kong spoke English and many had means, Mr. Leung recounts. But acceptance didn’t come immediately. Markham’s growing Chinese community encountered some hostility back in the 1990s. One local councillor made remarks in the media that were widely construed to be racist.

Then, in the mid-1990s, came a contentious zoning debate over Markham’s Pacific Mall and other Asian shopping centres. Unlike traditional malls, which have anchor tenants and are controlled by a management company, the Asian malls were built on the condo model: Individual merchants could purchase one or more units, as well as sell them. There was no central body controlling the mix of retailers.

The Town of Markham had to approve these developments, which at the time were unlike anything most suburban planners had ever encountered. The notion of a condo mall was “a different animal,” recalls Mayor Scarpitti. “It was not without controversy. We were setting new standards.”

Markham’s council may not have realized it at the time, but the decision to approve the condo malls – and later, condo office developments – gave the town’s immigrant-driven economy a critical boost. Catering to individual merchants rather than chains, the malls provided a stage for hundreds of entrepreneurial start-ups as well as sources of employment for many newcomers.

“The town promotes big business but also small business,” Mr. Leung observes.

Going well beyond their basic consumer function, the Asian malls provided a source of economic footholds in what seemed to be a traditional suburban setting. And these places, adds Samtack’s Mr. Ng, have also ended up functioning as de facto social hubs for older Chinese immigrants who may not have the language skills. “If you go early in the morning,” he says, “there’s a lot of tai chi going on.”

Working on inclusion

When Stephen Wong came to Canada 34 years ago, he had to figure out how Canadians conduct themselves in work environments. “I learned it on my own. There were no government seminars, no help, nothing.”

The owner of ESM International, an international training and educational services firm, Mr. Wong has been a volunteer on the Markham Board of Trade for a decade. But his preoccupation is helping newcomers obtain the skills they’ll need to fit in and then thrive.

Many Asian immigrants, he says, come with ample professional or technical skills in fields such as engineering and software development. But in his estimation, they are rejected for jobs not because they lack Canadian experience but because “in the interview process, they demonstrate a lack of communication skills.”

Mr. Wong educates new immigrants about the “Canadian way of understanding things,” and also writes manuals and gives seminars to Markham employers, offering them advice on how to assess job applicants whose language skills may be lacking.

“I’m trying to bring the communications gap a lot closer,” he says.

In a community as ethnically diverse as Markham, there can be no sustained economic success without such bridging efforts. And Markham is successful because there are dozens of agencies, not-for-profits, community groups and companies all doing just what Mr. Wong is doing.

Mr. Scarpitti points out that York Region, which encompasses Markham and several other highly diverse municipalities north of Toronto, has moved in recent years to confront this issue with a range of new programs and a broad-based strategy called the Inclusivity Action Plan. The services range from a year-old Welcome Centre in neighbouring Vaughan to a program that provides newcomers with a stipend to buy suitable clothes for job interviews. “We’re opening our doors and there’s no doubt that we need immigrants to ensure our future economic prosperity. But it’s not enough to say, ‘We’re here and we’re open for business.’ “

Connecting globally

The latest chapter in Markham’s evolving relationship with its immigrant communities is an official recognition that the town’s diversity provides “an opportunity for us to sell ourselves globally,” says Joann Simmons, community and health services commissioner for York Region.

Last year, Markham was one of four municipalities in the Greater Toronto Area that embarked on trade missions to Asia (the others were Toronto, Mississauga and Vaughan). “These immigrants are wonderful connections for doing business with their homeland,” Mr. Scarpitti says.

Last March, the Board of Trade and the Richmond Hill Markham Chinese Business Association sent 24 delegates to three Chinese cities. Mr. Leung, one of the organizers, says one project to emerge from the mission is a plan to help would-be immigrants have their professional credentials recognized before they leave China. Another: a group of wealthy Chinese investors wants to come to take flying lessons at Markham’s Buttonville airport.

Mr. Wong, of the Board of Trade, was pleased with the practical nature of the journey. Most trade missions, he says, revolve around banquets and photo sessions, resulting in nothing much.

“The trip was very good,” Mr. Wong says, “because we made some very good contacts that we can use down the road.”

Reference: Globe and Mail