Sikhs in Brampton, Canada

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It's Sikh and flourish Brampton thrives as a Little Punjab, but behind the similarities hard challenges await

For Sikh newcomers driving through pockets of Brampton for the first time, the landscape warrants a double take.

Plazas lined with Punjabi stores, Gurdwaras open for worship, and older men, wisps of white hair peeking out from under their turbans, chatting on park benches.

It's a carbon-copy image of the neighbourhoods they left behind in the Punjab.

But first- and second-generation Sikh immigrants will tell you that more meaningful markers -- the ability to get a good job, access to higher education -- reveal distinct differences between Sikh neighbourhoods in the Greater Toronto Area and the Punjab.

It was that universal immigrant ambition to earn a better life that brought the first significant wave of Sikhs from the Punjab to southern Ontario in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There were a handful of Sikhs back then, clusters that settled around their then scarce places of worship, called Gurdwaras.

Now about 100,000 Sikhs live in Ontario, most of them around the GTA.

The thick concentration has raised the community's profile in certain municipalities, like Brampton and parts of Mississauga.

"I think the experience of the Sikh community is a really good example of different minorities in general," said Ramandeep Kaur Grewal, a 32-year-old Sikh and executive member of The Sikh Centennial Foundation, a national advocacy organization.

The community has gone through the growing pains of establishing themselves, she said, providing for their families, educating their children and preserving their culture.

"The foundation is laid," said Ms. Grewal. "Now we're in that real growth phase ... we're making our presence felt here in Canada."

Sikhs have fruitful businesses in the GTA, and are developing land into plazas that cater to their growing community. They have been elected to different levels of government, and the new Brampton Hospital's emergency department will bear the name of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, in honour of the community's contributions.

There are more than a dozen weekly Punjabi community newspapers in the GTA, plus a daily. The area carries significance back home, too, with Punjabi ministers scheduling stops when they travel through Canada.

Ms. Grewal's family moved to Scarborough in the 1970s when she was a toddler. Her parents were part of the wave of educated middle-class Sikhs who foresaw obstacles to prosperity in the Punjab and took a gamble on Canada.

Subsequent waves of Sikh immigrants left India in the 1980s because of the simmering religious and political climate. A steady stream continues today.

Many Sikhs took jobs that revolved around Toronto's Pearson International Airport, said Gurdish Singh Mangat, a Sikh real estate agent based in Brampton for nearly 20 years. Settling in the surrounding area made sense. That's how the older, more established Malton community started.

It has branched out to newer neighbourhoods in Brampton and Mississauga as people continue to gravitate to places that look, sound and taste like home.

"When you come so far from a country and you find someone from your village or your town, even if you have never met [in India], it's the familiarity, it's the comfort," said Mr. Mangat, 51, who is president of the Peel Multicultural Council.

That social support system goes a long way to ease the transition of immigrants, who get a rude awakening when they move to Canada and can't find work in their own fields, said Mr. Mangat. "I have seen doctors driving cabs. Nothing wrong with driving cabs or washing dishes..." trailed off Mr. Mangat. It's not the Canada they were sold overseas, he said. "Most of them feel cheated."

Ms. Grewal's parents encountered employment difficulties and quickly abandoned notions of getting work in their professions. They took jobs at factories to support their young family.

Eventually the couple opened up their own business, a banquet hall in Brampton.

Like them, there are others.

The Chatwal family started the chain of Bombay Palace restaurants in the GTA in 1979, and now have locations in Brampton, Scarborough and several around the world. Mr. Mangat's Indian law degree didn't translate into opportunities here, so he started a string of businesses before going into real estate. Bealt Singh Chana, an Amritdhari Sikh, used his background in mechanical engineering to start a profitable manufacturing business in the mid-'70s that specialized in parts for the automotive industry. The 64-year-old is considered one of the most successful businessmen in the community.

"Sikhs are a very enterprising people. We have a great sense of spirit," said Ms. Grewal.

"You will find Sikhs will seek out challenges to overcome them," she said.

Her parents passed their hard work ethic on to their children. "For us, not going to university, not getting A's [at school], it was never a choice," said Ms. Grewal, a lawyer at a Toronto firm.

And so, the first generation of immigrants are seeing their sacrifices pay off as children become successful lawyers, teachers and engineers.

Those children are raising their own families now, and marvel at how times have changed.

Ms. Grewal remembers being the only "brown" child in her classrooms for much of her youth.

"My son now goes to a public school in Brampton where he was one of 12 Punjabi students in his classroom," she said. "That's a huge change."

She admits raising her five-year-old son and younger daughter in a neighbourhood where they are not the odd ones out, where they're as likely to hear Punjabi as they are to hear English at school, is appealing.

More than 20,000 people attend North America's largest Gurdwara, at the corner of Dixie and Derry roads. More Gurdwaras are slated for construction, including one being developed by Mr. Chana as part of a multi-million-dollar plaza at the corner of Gore and Ebenezer Roads in Brampton.

Dr. Ranvir Sharda, a Hindu Punjabi who owns the community newspaper Nagara, thinks that although sticking together has allowed the Sikh community to make political and social gains, it could have gained more economically by opening up to the mainstream Canadian culture.

Others argue that the strength in numbers is pushing the Sikh culture more into the mainstream.

Non Sikh-Canadians are visiting restaurants like the Bombay Palace, and walking out with cookbooks and addresses of shops that sell specialty spices. The Dixie Gurdwara opens its doors to high school students of different faiths several times every month for a tour.

Ms. Grewal offers her favourite bit of proof.

Not long ago she took her son Mehtab swimming at a community pool. Another mother saw the boy's long hair being unwrapped from his headscarf and confused him with a girl.

The woman was quickly corrected by her four-year-old blond daughter: "He's a Sikh, mom. Don't you know Sikhs have long hair?"

National Post 2005

A little piece of the Punjab

Immigrants recreate home in suburbs'

Cultural communities big, prosperous


With his turban, kurta pyjama and flowing beard, Jarnail Singh Dhillon has experienced his share of racism since coming to Canada from India in 1972.

But that's all changed since he moved to north Brampton five years ago, where his neighbours mostly look like him and speak his native Punjabi.

"Now I feel I'm living back home in Punjab. I feel more safe and secure here. There's no fear of anyone making fun of me. It's all my people. We respect each other," says Dhillon, 54, a retired factory worker who walks to the nearby gurdwara twice a day to pray.

As a cultural map of the city produced by a pair of Ryerson University researchers (in today's GTA section) shows, a growing number of Torontonians — particularly those of South Asian and Chinese background — have deliberately chosen to live in such ethnic enclaves.

And unlike the economically poor neighbourhoods that immigrants once settled in — only to move on as the second and third generations prospered — their stunning growth, size and affluence suggests these are communities that may endure:

Increasingly, they're prosperous and suburban — communities with their own thriving economies and support systems that make them a destination for both well-to-do newcomers and longtime residents.

Economic strength and quality housing may foster the stability already evident in second- and third-generation enclaves, like the Jewish community along Bathurst St., and the Italian community in Woodbridge.

They're multiplying rapidly. According to Statistics Canada, Toronto had just six census tracts where 30 per cent or more of residents were from a particular visible minority in 1981; in 2001, there were 254.

What does this rapid change mean to the future of the GTA? Will it, as some worry, retard the adaptation of newcomers to Canada, alienate us from each other, or diminish our sense of shared values?

"There is always the fear that these enclaves will lead to segregation; there will be no social cohesion and immigrants' integration into the Canadian population will be impeded," says Ryerson professor Mohammad Qadeer, who with colleague Sandeep Kumar has been tracking the growth of enclaves in Greater Toronto.

"The assumption is new immigrants are segregating themselves, refusing to integrate.

"For sure, a new structure of the city is beginning to emerge. These ethnic enclaves are adding to the tapestry of the whole GTA, breaking the monotony of our suburbs and enlivening our lives."

Kumar and Qadeer acknowledge that, for some, these neighbourhoods might raise the dreaded spectre of the ghetto — a Toronto version of Harlem or Watts. But people like Dhillon don't see a problem.

The benefits of living in "Browntown" or "Singhdale," as residents jokingly refer to the heavily South Asian subdivisions of Springdale and Castlemore, far outweigh any drawbacks, Dhillon says.

His "WASP" neighbours in Windsor, where the family lived for 10 years, weren't so friendly. "They were always complaining about the smell of our food, the way we dressed, and they were jealous of our brand new car."

Dhillon lives in an extended family with his wife, their three grown children, daughter-in-law and grandchild. His children are planning to stay.

"Here, I can go anywhere and I don't feel different at all," says son Gurpreet, 25, a university student who also wears a turban.

Enclaves offer members of minority groups a comfort level rarely matched elsewhere: Being able to speak their language, practise their customs and dress in traditional garb without having to explain themselves. The convenience of being close to shops and services catering to them. A better chance of preserving their culture and identity.

In the past, when new immigrants congregated in a particular area, it was mostly out of necessity — they couldn't speak English, or housing was cheaper. Such communities still exist in urban areas, though constantly in flux. For example, the heavily Caribbean/black neighbourhoods in North York that appear on a 1996 map produced by the Ryerson researchers have already been diluted or dispersed as their populations moved out (perhaps as they prospered) and other ethnicities moved in.

Today's suburban enclaves, in contrast, are the chosen destination of people who could afford to live anywhere.

The housing is bigger and more posh — homes in Castlemore, for example, typically sell for $500,000.

The enclaves attract new as well as long-established immigrants, some of whom are moving there from other parts of the GTA.

They form their own thriving economies. Three full-service malls catering to South Asians have sprung up in Brampton, with more in the works — in contrast to the mom-and-pop operations of previous generations.

As enclaves become established, mainstream culture has a way of breaking in and adapting to the setting, rather than the other way around: Starbucks outlets in Markham have a menu in Chinese. The major banks in Brampton offer service in Punjabi. The Dominion and IGA along the Bathurst St. corridor have huge kosher sections.

Some enclaves are large enough to form homogeneous communities within a broader community. The majority of South Asians in north Brampton, for example, are Punjabi Sikhs, while Sri Lankan Tamils dominate the South Asian enclave in Scarborough.

While Kadeer and Qumar found that most members of ethnic communities do not live in enclaves, one exception is the Jewish enclave clustered along the Bathurst St. corridor.

Its population runs as high as 70 per cent Jewish around Steeles Ave., making it the most "segregated" neighbourhood in Toronto.

Marci Tenenbaum, who moved to the area in 1974 as a York University student, is a typical resident. Growing up as part of the only Jewish family in a small town in Manitoba, she struggled to retain her identity. She vowed it would be different for her children

"I moved here for the Jewish community," says Tenenbaum, 50, an administrator at She'arim Hebrew Day School, who is married with four children. "It's a safety net of like people who believe in the same values, and you don't have to constantly explain yourself or apologize that your lifestyle is different."

Eating kosher food, attending synagogue, observing Friday-night Sabbath, and supporting Israel are "a core part of our existence," she says.

She sent all her children to private Jewish schools, though she also enrolled them in hockey and gymnastics in other parts of the city "so they could meet other types of people in the world." One of her children has married within the faith and she hopes the others will, too.The corridor has a small-town, "Beaver Cleaver-like" friendliness in the midst of a bustling city, where neighbours can count on each other, she says.

"Here we are in 2005, but it's like the 1950s, because you will find an apron on most women in this community on Friday afternoon as they try to outdo each other preparing the Sabbath dinner."

With just over 100,000 Jews in Toronto, preserving one's identity is a "constant battle," says Rabbi Moshe Stern of Shaarei Tefillah Synagogue. Living in a close-knit enclave with limited interaction with the outside world lessens the pressure on children to assimilate, says Stern, adding, "It's not the European ghetto mentality. This is by choice."

"We are in a cocoon where the people you see every day are Jewish. Yes, it creates a hermetically sealed, isolated environment, but the less you interact with the outside world, the less possibility there will be for assimilation. It's nothing to do with racism, God forbid," he says. "It has to do with identity and a way of life that is under threat."