Are Canada’s Cities Becoming More Segregated?

Mapped Presence

“Mapped Presence” by blacqbook

According to Statistics Canada, Canada now has 254 “visible minority neighbourhoods”—neighbourhoods that have more than 30 percent of their population from a particular visible minority group—most of which are found in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. When this number was first revealed in 2004, many members of Canada’s mass media saw it as an indication that our cities are becoming racially segregated patchworks of ethnic enclaves and insular communities.

Some have used the number as a convenient way to raise questions about official multiculturalism. Last year, pollster and pundit Alan Gregg wrote in a Walrus essay that the rise of “ethnic enclaves” tells us that “Canada’s fabled mosaic is fracturing and that ethnic groups are self-segregating.” Later, he adds that “this growing sense of separateness can have troubling consequences for national identity.”

More recently, in a Le Devoir article on the 25th anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the reporter Hélène Buzzetti rolled out the same numbers to question whether Charter-led multicultural policy might be undermining Canada’s social fabric. Could the rise of such enclaves ethniques be a sign of the “obliteration of Canadian society?” she asks.

But Buzzetti and Gregg, like many others, cite the “ethnic enclave” number without seeming to understand the demographics behind it. In fact, few people in the mass media have ever taken a close look at why the number of visible minority neighbourhoods has increased. (For one, nobody really seems to grasp that Statistics Canada’s “visible minority neighbourhoods” are not actually the same as ethnic enclaves.) The end result is that the media give the impression that Canadian cities are becoming more and more segregated when, in fact, the opposite is true.

In their study “Visible minority neighbourhoods in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver,” Statistics Canada analysts Feng Hou and Garnett Picot found that the vast majority of Canada’s 254 visible minority neighbourhoods are located in Vancouver and Toronto; 60 percent of them are Chinese, 34 percent South Asian and 6 percent black.

When Hou and Picot refer to “visible minority neighbourhoods,” they are actually referring to census tracts: tiny areas that rarely contain more than a few thousand people. Real neighbourhoods are comprised of several different census tracts, so all of these so-called “visible minority neighbourhoods” are actually small parts of much larger and more complex areas, most of which are ethnically diverse. “Less than 10 percent of Chinese neighbourhoods [in Toronto] are in the old Chinatowns east and west of the downtown core,” write Hou and Picot. “Most of the Chinese neighbourhoods are located in Scarborough, Markham and Richmond Hill.” In other words, Toronto’s heavily Chinese census tracts are scattered across an enormous swath of suburbia hundreds of square kilometres large.

Many observers overlook these nuances. Alan Gregg writes, “In Canada, we may live in a multicultural society, but the evidence suggests that fewer and fewer of us are living in multicultural neighbourhoods. The tradition of immigrants clustering in a community for one generation before the next generation moves on and ‘melts’ into mainstream culture seems to be breaking down. Large districts are evolving into areas dominated by individual ethnic groups that have chosen to live apart from those who do not share their ancestry.” Unfortunately, Gregg fails to provide even a shred of evidence to this effect. He seems to think that the increasing numbers of visible minority neighbourhoods is proof enough that Canadians are segregating themselves into insular ethnic community. He is wrong. Non-white Canadians, including Chinese and South Asians, are more geographically dispersed than ever. Rates of interracial marriage have soared in recent decades.

In fact, Gregg’s assertions are directly contradicted by Hou and Picot. Not only do they point out that the number of visible minorities has increased in almost every neighbourhood in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, they reveal that these cities are less segregated today than in 1981. The proof is in the “isolation index,” which is used to determine the likelihood that a member of one visible minority group will encounter another member of that same visible minority group in his or her own neighbourhood. For every visible minority group, the isolation index has increased. Hou and Picot explain:

The calculation of the isolation index is dependent on a group’s residential segregation and upon the group’s proportion of the total population in the CMA. In nearly all of the cases where the isolation index has increased, most of the increase is associated with the growth in a group’s share of the city population rather than increased concentration of the group in particular neighbourhoods. Visible minority groups have a much larger share of the populations of Toronto, Montréal, and Vancouver in 2001 than in 1981. The increase is particularly strong among South Asians, whose share almost tripled in Montréal and Vancouver and quadrupled in Toronto.

For the Chinese in Vancouver, all of the increase in their isolation index was due to the increase in their population share. For South Asians and Blacks in Toronto, Blacks in Montréal and Filipinos in Vancouver, over 70% of the increase in their isolation index was associated with a larger population share. Only among South Asians in Vancouver and Montréal was increased residential segregation the dominant factor in growth in their isolation index.

As visible minorities’ share of the population has increased, their rates of residential segregation have decreased. It’s a simple truth that too many people overlook when they glibly refer to the abundance of “ethnic enclaves” in Canada’s cities. Ethnic enclaves are entirely different animals than Hou and Picot’s “visible minority neighbourhoods” (and, in turn, they are very different from ethnic ghettoes). In the coming weeks, keep an eye out for an introduction to the origins, history and structure of ethnic enclaves as well as a series of posts on an entirely new type of ethnic settlement in suburban Canada: ethnoburbia.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Sunday April 15 2007at 05:04 pm , filed under Canada, Demographics, Politics, Society and Culture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Response to “Are Canada’s Cities Becoming More Segregated?”

  • Vila H. says:

    Excellent analysis. I’ll only add that immigrants have clustered within larger neighbourhoods since the nineteenth century, so the discussion might benefit from a little historical perspective as well.