Bountiful Diversity

A leading Québécois scholar’s appreciative look at Canada’s biggest province

On a rainy spring day back in 1971 my parents and I climbed into our Buick Skylark and headed west, leaving Montreal and heading for Highway 401, to a new life in Toronto. It was a journey made back then by many families, part of the so-called anglo exodus.

My parents had grown weary of exploding mailboxes and the longstanding resentment displayed by Quebec’s majority toward those who did not speak French. They were relieved to be starting over in a city that seemed to welcome all comers. As for me, an 18-year-old leaving behind friends and my studies at McGill University, I wept all the way to Kingston.

As things turned out, Toronto was just fine. It was a big, convenient city that “had everything.” And to my amazement, even the bus drivers spoke English. While the urban landscape lacked any mountain in its midst or a river coursing around it, it boasted some pretty ravines and had a lake at its south end. And, quite wonderfully, no one discussed language politics here, or separating from Canada. Indeed, I felt excited finally to have discovered Canada.

It is that very sensibility that Jean-Louis Roy explores in Ontario in Transition: Achievements and Challenges. The book dissects the most populous province’s character as well as present-day economic challenges and, increasingly, its problematic situation within the federation.

The fact that Roy himself is a Quebecer makes his observations all the more compelling. The author is someone with an intimate understanding of his own society and its place in Canada, having been Quebec’s representative in Paris, a director of the Montreal daily Le Devoir and director of McGill University’s Centre for French Canadian Studies.

The 72-year-old author spent time as a visiting professor at Toronto’s York University and taught in New Brunswick. He is also chancellor of Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia. In preparing his book, he spent three years interviewing 160 Ontarians.

The most scintillating of the book’s three chapters focuses on the notion—reinforcing my own discovery—that anyone and everyone can become a Torontonian. The process is fairly easy and painless.

The author makes the case that Ontario plays, and always will, a pre-eminent role in Canada despite the western region’s rising influence and a federal government that pays less heed to Trillium Country than has been the case historically.

“An interest in the future of Ontarians is tantamount to an interest in the future of all Canadians,” Roy asserts. This is not just a result of size, although Ontario certainly is big. With a territory the size of France and Spain combined, and 12.5 million residents, the province is expected to account for close to half of all Canadians within the next quarter century.

Ontario is impressive for something else too: it stands out as “a conglomerate of Diasporas.” Since the 1980s the province has evolved into “an unprecedented model of togetherness,” a post-multicultural oasis where diversity is “the dominant value.”

How else to explain how the late Lincoln Alexander, a black lawyer and politician, son of a cleaning lady and a railway luggage handler, rose in 1985 to become the province’s lieutenant governor?

As the Alexander example shows, immigrants in Ontario are not necessarily disadvantaged the way they are in other parts of the world, writes Roy, clearly impressed by the number of prominent Ontarians with immigrant backgrounds. Windsor’s mayor, he recounts, is of Lebanese origin; the publisher of the London Free Press has Italian roots; Toronto’s poet laureate hails from Trinidad; the president of the Toronto Community Foundation was born in India.

In Toronto, the author says he found “a flowering tolerance.” The city has become a “street festival, a parade, a grand bazaar.” And Franco-Ontarians, who make up just 5 percent of Ontario’s population, are represented by an Assemblée de la francophonie de l’Ontario. They have a Franco-Ontarian flag and can take complaints to a French-language services commissioner who oversees the French Language Services Act.

People do not spend much time debating the concept of reasonable accommodation here, as they do in Quebec. Because, in this “heterogeneous, multiethnic, multicultural and multilingual” locale, it is the minority groups, collectively, who have become the dominating majority. “It is becoming increasingly difficult to discriminate against such an important number of people.” Ontario is becoming “a society comprised of diverse communities whose equilibrium is and will be structurally different from that of a society comprised of a majority that defines the norms and rules that apply to minorities. The province has entered in a new phase of its history.”

So integrated is this new Ontario, so welcoming its largest city, that half of all immigrants to Canada now settle in the Greater Toronto Area, observes Roy.

As for population movement within Canada, Roy finds, in 16 of the 26 years between 1981 and 2007, internal migration patterns tipped in Ontario’s favour. Only Alberta and British Columbia had better records. Roy’s home province of Quebec experienced an internal migration deficit in every one of those years, save one. Quebec supplies Ontario with half its Canadian migrants.

Yet for all the praise he directs toward Ontario’s variegated populace, Roy is not naive, appropriately citing poverty and employment disadvantages that many within the diaspora communities continue to suffer.

This is but one component of a broader challenge facing Ontarians relating to its economy that needs to evolve from being a player within a continent, heavily reliant on a U.S. market, into one that can manoeuvre within a globalized economy.

Roy describes a series of shifts that have made life tougher for Ontario since around 2000: the collapse of a dominant American market; a more complicated border; a newly robust Canadian dollar; a lagging record on innovation, productivity and competitiveness; and a debilitating provincial budget deficit. While gross domestic product growth was almost 5 percent between 1996 and 2000, these days it is 0.8 percent. And the growth rate in both employment and disposable income lately has lagged behind the national average. Ontario, once the engine of Canada’s economy with a history of looking after and leading other provinces and regions, has lately qualified for equalization cash.

As a result of its more modest standing, Ontario has been demanding a “new deal” within a federation that, Roy observes, is increasingly constituted by assertive regions. These days, Ontario is having to confront “the undeniable momentum of western Canada.”

In 2009, the province attempted to increase its clout by joining forces with Quebec, penning the Trade and Cooperation Agreement between Ontario and Quebec, a labour and mobility pact similar to one signed in 2006 between British Columbia and Alberta, and later Saskatchewan.

Ontarians are growing ever more uncomfortable with the diminishing level of respect the province receives and its influence within the country, writes Roy, who believes the Stephen Harper–led government has tried to minimize federal-provincial contacts and has treated Ontario “offhandedly.”

But if the new influence of Western Canada is posing a challenge for Ontario, might it not present a welcome opportunity for the country as a whole? Had Roy lived a while in the West, the author probably would have developed a different perspective on Ontario’s place at the centre.

Arguably, it is healthier—even at the expense of Ontario—for every region in Canada to pump a little more iron and flex more muscle. Only in recent years have western provinces found conditions in which they have been able to assert themselves effectively, with a newly big-voiced Alberta leading the charge on energy and B.C. becoming Canada’s all-important portal to Asian markets.

The West formerly was not “in” and not able to contribute as fully as it wished to the federation. To a great extent that was because Ontario was so big and imposing, there simply was no room at the table. Once Bill Davis spoke, who cared what Bill Bennett had to say? These days Alberta and B.C.—both woefully underrepresented in the House of Commons and Senate—are vocally demanding their share of political representation. And that is a good thing.

A pan-Canadian perspective also appears less than evident in Roy’s observations about the supremacy of Ontario’s entertainment and cultural sectors, accounting for half of Canada’s jobs in film, television, publishing, music and interactive digital media.

Roy writes: “with the exception of Quebec, whose cultural specificity is undeniable, and the Ottawa region [accommodating the National Capital Region] … Toronto is obviously the country’s cultural capital.”

But this is only the case if you believe that size is all that counts. One of the most culturally distinctive provinces, in my own experience, is Newfoundland, where the Great Big Sea lives, visitors get “screeched in,” mummers visit neighbours and perform around kitchen tables, innovative artists interpret the province’s starkly stunning beauty, and superb theatre regularly recounts the province’s own history to its inhabitants.

And in Vancouver, where I now live, cultural specificity is part and parcel of daily life.

It is true, as Roy reports, you can access the City of Toronto’s website in no fewer than 52 languages. But the same is the case in the City of Vancouver, where newcomers are apt to feel at home with every bit as much ease as they do in Toronto. Toronto, of course, as the country’s largest city—by far—impressively boasts the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, the Ontario College of Art and Design, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Conservatory of Music and the National Ballet School. But if it is cultural specificity that is being judged, the western provinces, and particularly Vancouver, are bountifully endowed.

Statistics Canada projects that, by the time Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2017, more than half the populations of both Toronto and Vancouver likely will be members of a visible minority.

Moreover, Vancouver has more interracial couples and less residential segregation than either Toronto or Montreal. It is possible to ride the Canada Line, which runs down the spine of Vancouver, and not hear a word of English spoken, possible to visit a mall in suburban Richmond and see signage in Chinese only. Vancouver has the third largest Chinatown on the continent next to that of San Francisco and New York. And in the midst of this multicultural muddle, everyone appears to get along pretty well.

All of which is to say that Roy’s thought-provoking treatise on Ontario profiles but one of ten exceptional provinces in this magnificently diverse country.