“I was only 5 at the time and was called a ‘Paki’ when I’d be riding my bike on the street,” he recalls. “It was the first time that someone told me that I was ‘different.’ It really sucked.”
Gurmeet Singh also looks back with mixed feelings. Once employed by McCain Foods and sent back to India to introduce his homeland to French fries, he was part of the first big wave of Indian immigrants to Brampton. One of his earliest memories is of being harassed soon after arriving in 1993.
“Would you believe: We were sitting one day outside at the entrance of the gurdwara,” he says, “and there were four kids who came on a vehicle and threw eggs on us.”
Signs of change – and friction – can be found from coast to coast. This week, the national soccer association ejected Quebec for refusing to permit players to wear religious headgear. Last month, Richmond Hill, Ont., raised eyebrows by banning the number four as an address for future streets, a nod to the superstitions of its sizable Chinese population.
Problems persist in Brampton – but don’t seem to be getting any worse. The infamous “white people” rant went viral last year only because it was widely condemned and sparked a rash of response videos on YouTube, some of them generating hundreds of thousands of views.
Recent numbers from the Peel Regional Police show hate crimes in a steady decline. Blacks and South Asians remain the most-targeted racial groups, with teens responsible for most infractions (largely graffiti). Last year, 47 incidents were reported, down from 52 in 2011, 76 in 2010 and 95 in 2009. (The tally for 2008 was just 37, perhaps because it was the first year.)
The nation as a whole is seeing a similar dip. In 2010 (the most recent year for complete data), 1,401 incidents were reported, down 18 per cent from the previous year and a marked departure from increases of 35 and 42 per cent in the previous two years.
Familiarity, it seems, doesn’t have to breed contempt.
Steve Collie of the historical society says he discovered a desire to break down walls years ago while planning Doors Open, a festival that allowed residents to explore buildings across the city.
He decided to invite the Hindu Sabha Temple to take part. With its beehive-like domes, it is an architectural oddity in Brampton and sits behind a long stone wall, gated off like a private country club, making its interior a mystery to most.
The event came less than a year after 9/11 and Mr. Collie told a temple official that this was an opportunity to correct stereotypes. “A lot of people don’t know who you are,” he recalls saying. “They think you’re brown, so you’re terrorists.”
The temple agreed to open its doors – and proved to be the hit of the year, drawing more than 5,000 visitors.
Then there are the quintessentially Canadian ways Bramptonians are attempting to bridge the ethnic gap.
The police force says it is struggling to reflect the new face of Brampton in its own rank and file because it has such a low turnover rate. But it has created a special diversity unit and in 2009 launched a briefing program for new residents. Every year 26 sessions are held to explain everything from how to call 911 to why in Canada there is no need to assume all police are corrupt.
Language can be a barrier but Sergeant Tony Bayley of the diversity unit says Peel officers now speak a combined total of 50 tongues and will use an interpreter if required. However, he adds, someone at a recent community event to attract more minorities to the force made an interesting suggestion: Make a second language mandatory for new recruits.
Sport is also a point of cultural contact. New Canadians have brought their passions – I drove past more cricket matches than I can recall, and a 2,600-seat stadium for kabaddi (a hybrid of rugby, wrestling and Red Rover wildly popular in South Asia) is to open this summer right beside the Powerade Centre, with four rinks worthy of the National Hockey League.