Ethnic Enclaves – Are They Good or Bad for Canada?

Box: Many South Asians live in ethnic enclaves, where their neighbours dress like them, eat the same kinds of foods as they do, practice similar religions, and speak the same languages. While there are many benefits to living in ethnic enclaves, there are also some drawbacks.

“Ethnic enclaves” refers to any area where there is a high concentration of people who belong to the same ethno-cultural community. While a place like White Rock could be called an ethnic enclave consisting of Caucasian Canadian people, the term more typically refers to areas where there are large numbers of non-Caucasian and non-Aboriginal people – places like parts of Richmond that are predominantly Chinese-Canadian or parts of Surrey that are predominantly South Asian Canadian.

Most enclaves were created many decades ago, as a result of visible minority immigrants not being welcomed into larger Canadian society – so these immigrants decided to settle close to each other (these kinds of exclusionary practices began even before ethnic immigrants began arriving here, with Aboriginal people being put into reserves against their will).

So by living near each other, these immigrant communities were able to provide both social support and safety to each other. Over time, new immigrants also settled into these enclaves, where they too could find instant support and safety.

These days, Canada is a more welcoming place – and people do not have to fear for their safety the way they did fifty years or so ago – yet ethnic enclaves are still continuing to grow in size. So this begs the question: And are ethnic enclaves a good thing or bad thing?

The answer to this question is not a simple one – because there are probably both good and bad aspects of ethnic enclaves.

It is quite understandable why many South Asians want to settle in some neighbourhoods in Surrey – there can be great comfort in residing in a place with others that look like them, dress like them, and speak the same first language as them. Plus, the support found within these communities remains considerable – new immigrants in particular can feel quite welcomed within these communities (especially if that is what they are used to back home) – compared to more ‘European’ communities, which often emphasize more independence and separation between neighbours. In addition to providing comfort, the benefit of ethnic enclaves is that a person can be fairly independent living within one. For example, a South Asian senior who only speaks Punjabi does not have to rely on a family member to interpret for them – they can go to places like grocery stores and doctors where they can receive service in their own language without having to rely on anyone else.

Yet there are some equally significant drawbacks to ethnic enclaves. For one, newcomers who come to Canada are not getting the full exposure to what Canada is all about– instead they spend most of their time in their own enclave and miss out on the natural beauty and ethnic diversity (which opens us up to different types of food, entertainment and social opportunities) that exists in this nation. They also may be limiting themselves to certain kinds of employment – jobs found only within their enclaves – and may therefore not be finding work that they may enjoy more (and job dissatisfaction can lead to increased stress and frustration at home). In some cases, they may be exploited by employers who know these immigrants’ job options are limited. And when someone only socializes with people from the same ethnic community, they may find that gossip about them travels fast – meaning they become overly-concerned with projecting an image of being successful; ultimately this means they don’t always take care of their problems, and such problems inevitably keep growing – so over time they become harder to manage.

So while we all have a right to live where we want to, we should also remember that this nation has so much to offer – and all we have to do is be willing to step outside our comfort zones to discover it. Having said that, the Canadian systems – such as our education, social service and criminal justice systems – also need to be more responsive to the needs of ethnic communities – failing to do so means more people, if they feel unwelcomed or poorly treated by Canadian systems, will retreat into their own communities. Canada is a nation that has been built in part by immigrants, and its future success greatly depends on how well it integrates immigrants.