Canada, it turns out, is a hedgehog

December 8, 2010
Yonge Street

Bert Archer

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Ratna Omidvar, Cities of Migration – Tanja Tiziana


It may be our desire to be a fox, in the popular dichotomy dreamt up by Archilocus and popularized by Isaiah Berlin in his 1953 essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, that’s responsible for our bred-in-the-bone inferiority complex. But it turns out that the one big thing we know may be the single biggest issue facing the globe over the next century: urban migration. “It’s part of who we are, our history in Canada, that it’s perfectly natural for us to be a nation of immigrants,” says Ratna Omidvar, who’s in charge of a tiny organization called Cities of Migration, a project of the Maytree Foundation based in Toronto that’s making itself felt around the world. “We don’t really have an embedded personality, we don’t have an official religion, we haven’t been in long protracted wars with other aspects of our society. We are a new country, a young country, which makes it a lot easier for us to shift and change our personality.”

And as far as she’s concerned, Toronto is remarkable for how well, how innovatively, and how almost seamlessly it has become a functionally multi-racial, multi-cultural city like no other on the planet. And she’s using it as a base from which to bring together the best ideas on urban migration from all over the world and share them, so Paris can learn from London, London from San Francisco and San Francisco from Sydney.

“In Dublin, non-citizens vote in local elections,” Omivdar says. “That deserves some consideration. In Paris, there’s a diversity charter.” Lloyd’s Bank saved some of its own East London branches by modifying its hiring policies to reflect the cultural make-up of the neighbourhoods, and in Markham, Omidvar says, banks have lowered their counters to cater to the average heights of the primarily Asian people who are their clients.

“We’ve built this anthology of ideas,” she says, “and our goal is to connect local stakeholders across the world in understanding the context of good ideas. It’s really a storytelling project.”

Omidvar employs a staff of two to write the stories of the ideas that are gathered and shared across a network of urban organizations with names like CEOs for Cities, Urban Age, Global Cities, Creative Cities and Eurocities. “The number of organizations circling around the constellation of urbanism is significant,” Omidvar says. And it’s her job, as she sees it, to turn ideas into stories, which are the true lingua franca, and let the various neighbourhoods of the global village share their best with each other.

“We have created a large tent,” Omidvar says. “There is no membership, people refer good ideas to us. We have criteria, but we don’t have a scientific committee that oversees it. We’re pretty nimble. Once we find a good idea, we do the research, we talk to the protagonists, we write it up in a way that’s compelling in association with the protagonist in Cardiff or Malmo. We normally get 150 people on our webinars. This is all a web-based project. There’s no carbon footprint.”

The biggest thing that Omidvar has learned so far is that, as she puts it, “Integration is better than assimilation, but not as good as inclusion.”

“The project is situated in an international context,” she says, “and I’m sensitive to the fact that the inclusion conversation is very pertinent in Canada; in Europe, it’s just not there.” She says the same goes for the U.S. “They’re still at assimilation, so moving them from assimilation to integration is the first move, and ultimately we’ll get to Mecca.

“In fact, many would say even in Toronto, we are a very tolerant city, there is absolutely no doubt about that, but we are not an inclusive city. Take a look at who’s been elected to city council again. We’re not an inclusive city. If we were,” she says, “I think you would see more people who look like the people who ride the TTC in places of power and privilege.”

That said, she acknowledges that Toronto is in a unique position in the world, and tracking how we work things out will provide a good portion of the roadmap into the future.

“Miami has more immigrants than anywhere else in the world, but guess what? They’re all Cubans,” she says. “Birmingham is also very high on the diversity scale, but it’s all from two or three parts of the world. London comes close to us, but London’s diversity is predicated very much on the foreign expatriate worker who has chosen to relocate in London, whereas we are citizen-based.”

Not even big brother to the south, against whom all Toronto accomplishments are traditionally compared and mostly found wanting, can keep up with us when it comes to forging a city out of five million little differently coloured pieces.

“New York is probably somewhere close to us, though it’s not really up where we are. In the GTA, we are close to 50 per cent visible minorities. I don’t think New York is up there. We are going to be a majority minority city very soon. More than half of this city’s residents were born somewhere else. Markham is 68 per cent visible minority. These kinds of high levels may occur in parts of Los Angeles, but then it’s going to be the Iranians dominating one neighbourhood, or Filipinos. What’s different about Toronto is that it’s diverse — except maybe for Brampton, which is predominantly South Asian. Markham has many Chinese, it’s true, but there are whole blocks that are Guyanese, Sri Lankan, Punjabis.”

“I understand perfectly that in the short-term immigrant integration is presenting significant challenges,” she says by way of peroration. “But in the medium term and in the long term, we’re intermarrying more, they’re buying more homes and by and large, we live in peaceful harmony with each other.”

Maybe it’s time to consider replacing that industrious beaver on the back of our nickels with a harmonious hedgehog.


Reference: Yonge Street