In 1860, Edward Dale, another English expat, started selling produce from the farms door to door. But the village truly blossomed a few years later when his family switched to roses. The result was international acclaim and Brampton’s first major industry. By the early 20th century, according to Ontario Heritage Trust, one-quarter of all local residents were employed growing flowers under glass for the Dale Estate.
By the time the greenhouse empire declined a century later, Brampton was known as Flower City, and its economy had diversified, producing automobiles (for American Motors and now Chrysler), cigarettes for Benson & Hedges and a steady supply of Dixie Cups.
The appearance of Bramalea sparked urban development – cookie-cutter-copy subdivisions popped up across Brampton, which absorbed its satellite in 1974 when the Davis government arranged a shotgun wedding with neighbouring Mississauga to form the Regional Municipality of Peel. And the population grew as immigration cast an ever-wider net – first the Irish joined the original English and Scots to farm and grow flowers, followed by newcomers from far beyond the British Isles.
John Sprovieri’s family came from Calabria in southern Italy, arriving (after a short stop in Toronto) two years before the birth of Peel. Today he is a regional councillor for north Brampton, which is now the property developers’ latest frontier but still offers a glimpse of what the city used to be like.
I meet the councillor at a gleaming new community centre located near his home and beside an enormous park – 240 acres that he says will eventually house fields for cricket and kabaddi.
He tells me that farming began to decline in the 1960s, as young people left in search of professional work. The city split the land into more manageable 10-acre parcels, which attracted Italian and Portuguese immigrants. When they in turn began to sell their plots to developers, officials decided to try a different approach, one Mr. Sprovieri calls “upscale executive housing.”
“Brampton was known as a blue-collar town, a bedroom community, and we weren’t attracting the professional people,” he explains.
So enormous luxury homes were built to keep successful Bramptonites from drifting away. Not far from the community centre, a house Mr. Sprovieri calls the largest in town occupies almost two of the old farm plots. Sitting on 17 acres and set well back from the road, it is home to just two people: a South Asian doctor and his wife.
Affluence produces big houses but religion has had an equally notable impact on Brampton’s landscape. According to Statscan, 97,790 residents identified as Sikh in 2011 (up 183 per cent from 2001), followed by 63,390 Hindus (259 per cent) and 36,960 Muslims (222 per cent). As more established religions shrink, leaving stately churches without support, mosques, gurdwaras and Hindu temples appear on the skyline.
In north Brampton, for example, the opulent white Dasmesh Darbar gurdwara looks as if it were plucked from a riverbank in Chandigarh and dropped in the middle of an upper-income subdivision. And at the Mississauga border, meanwhile, the forest green minarets of the boxy Brampton Makki Masjid interrupt a drab stretch of low-rise industrial buildings, strip malls and a cosmetology school. Around 1:45 p.m. every day, traffic in the area picks up as the Islamic faithful rolls in from work for the 2 o’clock prayer.
As well as being the site of innovations in urban planning and design, health care, education and policing, Bampton is a political battleground – and seems to be going back to the future.
After decades of loyalty to the federal Liberals – the party of immigration reformer Pierre Trudeau – Brampton swung the other way in 2011. All four ridings voted Conservative, helping Stephen Harper capture his long-sought majority, although provincially the Liberals and New Democrats still hold sway.
But to urbanist Roger Keil, it is above all an economic beacon.
At the City Institute, he studies communities that surround big cities. He also used to drive his daughter to her gymnastics class in Brampton several times a week, and says it calls to mind Longueuil outside Montreal and Vancouver suburb Surrey.