Skip to main content

This is part of a series on how the diverse and growing city of Brampton, Ont., provides lessons for Canada's future.

It didn't take long after the first gurdwara was built for the neighbourhood around it to morph into a Little Punjab.

Homeowner after homeowner, some escaping the nocturnal chanting of the bedtime prayer, sold to Sikhs eager to live near the bastion of their spiritual and social lives. Now forsaken, the ball diamond next door gave way to extra parking (crowds can reach 10,000) and a gazebo. In the nearby plaza, the dry cleaners and Italian restaurant departed, replaced by shops selling South Asian groceries and sweets. Even the name of the street, Curlew, changed to Gurdwara Gate.

Comedian Russell Peters, the son of Indian immigrants and arguably Brampton's most celebrated cultural export, notices changes like this when he comes home.

The thought of the cross-cultural opportunities being lost concerns him: "That's going backwards, as far as I'm concerned."

Yet Brampton is anything but going backward. With a population approaching 550,000 – two-thirds of which are members of visible minorities, and with a significantly younger face than most of the country – a place most outsiders still consider a sleepy little suburb just west of Toronto is suddenly the nation's ninth-largest city, not far behind Vancouver.

With its swelling and diverse population, it is also a harbinger for how new demographic trends will reshape Canada. Ottawa plans to bring in roughly five million more immigrants over the next two decades. They will alter the nation's racial and ethnic makeup to such a degree that, by 2031, according to Statistics Canada, today's visible minorities will be the visible majority in Toronto (62 per cent) and Vancouver (59).

They will also have a major impact on the country's suburbs, as more and more newcomers settle near manufacturing and service jobs. That will make places like Brampton serious players – economically, as well as politically – and force them to rethink their communities at every level.

Brampton is well ahead of that curve, the site of innovations in urban planning and design, health care, education and policing – as well as the tensions that come with vast change.

"Brampton is at the forefront of something that hasn't existed before in Canada," says Roger Keil, a director at the City Institute at York University.

To find out whether the city is a model for the future or one we should avoid, I decided to pack up and move here. For a month, I lived in a new 12th-floor condominium within shouting distance of the "four corners," the intersection of Queen Street and Main, where the city was born almost 200 years ago.

Brampton is no stranger to the cutting edge: In the 1960s, a radical experiment on its east side produced Bramalea, the country's first "satellite city."

With curved streets, linear parks and its own city hall, Bramalea was heralded for its meticulous urban-growth strategy. "The plan," author Helga Loverseed writes in Brampton, An Illustrated History, "called for a development large enough to accommodate 50,000 to 90,000 people" in a "harmonious blend of neighbourhoods, industrial areas and shopping and cultural facilities."

Yet half a century later, it is part of Brampton and known in some quarters as "Bramladesh" because it epitomizes the transformation taking place. The evidence hangs on the wall at Bramalea Secondary School. Among the mullets, angel wings and middle parts favoured by the 142-member class of 1983, there are just four South Asian students and two black ones, whereas almost 80 per cent of last year's 307 grads were South Asian, East Asian or black.

Brampton today may seem a far cry from the tiny settlement its first property developer had named in honour of his English hometown in 1834 (the same year York became Toronto). But immigration has always played a role in its evolution – even if the original Brampton is a stone's throw from Hadrian's Wall, built by the Romans to keep newcomers out.

To attract settlers, John Elliott acquired a large tract of land which he subdivided into 200-acre farms that were given away – with strings attached.

"You had to clear five acres of that property ...," says Steve Collie, an executive member of the Brampton Historical Society. "Your neighbours would sign an affidavit saying that you did that, and you had to do it in 15 months, and the property was yours."

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.

All are increasingly diverse racially and have what Dr. Keil calls "a completely understated economy" – they are often dismissed as mere bedroom communities, but are necessary to the functioning of the big cities next door.

"I think that, given the particular mix of immigration and ethnicity and economic specialization, Brampton is at the forefront of something that hasn't existed before in Canada," he contends.

Living near an airport is usually something to avoid, and yet Pearson International, which introduces most immigrants to Canada, is right next door to burgeoning Brampton.

For decades, newcomers landed and promptly headed east to the big city. But then a shift in the economy drove the manufacturing and service jobs they need out of the inner city. "Since the eighties and early nineties, immigrants settle directly in the suburban areas," says Sandeep Agrawal, a specialist in ethnicity and multiculturalism at Ryerson University's school of urban and regional planning.

As a result, quips Harpal Singh, his face perfectly deadpan, new Canadians "like to live close to the airport – no need to call the taxi."

In reality, its proximity to Pearson, along with a connection to several major highways and large expanses of undeveloped land, make Brampton highly attractive to major corporations looking to build warehouses, some of them incredibly large. (Driving past Canadian Tire's gigantic distribution centre, my tiny white sedan walled in by transport trucks, is a claustrophobic experience.)

For many new arrivals, warehouse work is a survival gig, a paycheque until they can practise their preferred trade, and attractive because it rarely requires Canadian job experience.

Lack of experience is also why many immigrants have drifted toward taxi driving and, in Mr. Singh's case, long-haul trucking.

He was a banker in 1987 when he got married in Punjab and moved to Winnipeg, where his new wife's family had emigrated. But after six months, he grew frustrated with Manitoba's weak job market and what he considered the casually racist attitudes of people he encountered.

He then spent a decade in Toronto and by then it was clear he would never go back to banking. "The wages were so low so that you cannot afford the rent," he explains over baked samosas (diabetes has forced him to give up the deep-fried variety).

On the other hand, he adds, "you see a couple of friends already driving a truck and they say, 'You can get quick money, good money.' Especially when you sponsor your family, you need extra money."

Now, at 56, he brings in $5,000 to $6,000 a month.

The ex-banker didn't even need a financial institution's help when he decided to get into trucking: Friends in the Sikh community pooled their resources to raise the $4,000 he needed to be licensed.

"When you're a newcomer, you don't have credit, so how are you going to get ... your loan?" he asks. "You need a down payment too, right? If I'm buying a truck, they say, 'Okay, you need $20,000 plus guarantor.' Who's it going to be? My friends. They sign it. They know: 'He's going to be hard-working and he's going to be no problem.' "

Sukhi Vaid, a trucking-company manager also born in India, says even immigrants without relatives can find this kind of support. "It's a closely knit community. Friends or even community leadership, you can always ask for support or go to a temple for support," he says.

For decades, an abundance of affordable land has fuelled development – but is Brampton well planned?

"I'd probably say that it would've been more responsible to go with higher densities," Mr. Sprovieri says of the upscale north end. "But that's not what people want. That's not what the market wants."

Soon, the market may have to adjust because Brampton has another growth spurt on the way. In less than 20 years, it is expected to jump from a half-million to nearly three-quarters of a million people – and finding room for them is on city hall's mind right now. Councillors are reviewing the official plan, and this week held a special meeting for public input.

Asked how the city will accommodate another 40-per-cent increase in population, Susan Fennell launches into a carefully crafted, 2.5-minute spiel about Brampton's history, growth-management strategy and transit ridership. After 25 years on council, 13 of them as mayor, she knows the drill.

And then she says this: "Our densities are higher than what people think they are. We are the opposite of urban sprawl."

It is true that, in 2011, every Toronto dwelling had on average 2.5 people, while the Brampton average was 3.51 – 40 per cent higher. Homes in areas with the highest concentration of South Asians had four or more occupants – 5.7, in one case.

But this added density has less to do with urban planning or even an abundance of high-rises than with the rise of multigenerational living.

One Brampton family in 10 lives with relatives, including that of Harpal Singh. The trucker's spacious six-bedroom "castle" near Sheridan College houses his parents in the basement, while he, his wife and three daughters have the four bedrooms on the second floor. (One on the main floor has become the computer room.)

Mr. Singh says he was prepared to live with his parents after marriage because doing so is a cultural norm. But given that he is on the road from Monday to Friday and his wife works the night shift at United Parcel Service, he adds, the role they play cannot be overstated.

"Basically, I can say they take care of responsibilities 100 per cent. Dad drops the kids at the school bus. The younger one is still going to French school, so they take her there every day.

"If they're not here, I don't think I can survive."

However, in too many cases, multifamily housing is an economic necessity. Mr. Singh says he knows of families who have pooled resources – four or more incomes – to buy a house, splitting grocery, car and clothing bills as well.

In a city where those in need wait 11 years for affordable housing, this arrangement can be deceptive – by masking major social inequities.

For example, Springdale consists mostly of detached homes that sell on average for $600,000, yet United Way Peel says that 12.4 per cent of its residents live in poverty.

Springdale also epitomizes how settlement in Brampton has created insulated ethno-cultural communities instead of one that is integrated. Entire plazas are Indian-owned and operated, and social life for women in the area is said to revolve around basement salons that offer "threading," a method of eyebrow grooming popular in South Asia.

It's easy to see why a report prepared for Citizenship and Immigration Canada projects that by 2031, Sikhs will be "highly isolated" in and around Toronto.

"The way we're growing, we're growing within ourselves – we're breaking all our links with other community people," says Jagdish Grewal, editor of the local Punjabi daily newspaper, the first of its kind outside India.

"Our barbers are from our community, our accountants are from our community, our doctors are, restaurants, lawyers, everything is from within our community."

Even Gurmeet Singh, who moved here two decades ago, drawn by plans to build a gurdwara, is dismayed when the arrival of newcomers sparks an exodus. "They should try to integrate with each other – multicultural in Canada means the existing of the different cultures together," he says. "I feel sorry, actually, that those people are moving out."

Russell Peters agrees. Now living in Los Angeles, he comes home to visit his mother and finds Brampton very different from the place where he grew up: "All the kids just seem to hang out with 'their own kind' now. There's so many great things about all the other cultures, I feel like this generation of kids is missing out."

Not that he pines hugely for the good old days. Drawing from his past has helped him build a career on exploring racial stereotypes (including a wicked mimicking of his dad's accent), but some memories, he says by e-mail, are painful.

Back in the late seventies, his neighbourhood was "pretty much all white," except for a smattering of kids with West Indian, Filipino and Indian backgrounds.

"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.

In turn, they are slowly being infected by Brampton's hockey bug. As well as local heroes in the National Hockey League – such as Rick Nash, Tyler Seguin and Raffi Torres – Bramptonians also go wild for Toronto Maple Leafs star Nazem Kadri, who has no ties to the city but happens to be Muslim. "Mr. Kadri there is a big draw for what we call the 'New Canadian' market," says Glenn McIntyre, general manager of Brampton Hockey, the local organizing body.

Breakaway, the 2011 romantic comedy about an all-Sikh team, captures the game's growing appeal – illustrating why the Punjabi broadcast of Hockey Night in Canada is so popular here. The film is set in Brampton, with a cast that includes Mr. Peters, whose old joke about a play-by-play announcer struggling with such a team ("Singh passes to Singh, and Singh shoots on Singh") inspired the script.

As well, the growing interest has been carefully cultivated – and comes none too soon. Changing demographics so eroded attendance for the Battalion, the local major junior team, that it is moving to North Bay, a city with barely one-tenth Brampton's population.

After watching enrolment in its programs decline for years, Brampton Hockey started to send emissaries to area schools and temples for "education days." Mr. McIntyre says they soon learned that, while young South Asians were keen about hockey, most couldn't stand up on ice.

So the kids and their families were promptly pointed toward the city's learn-to-skate program. Now, he says, "On any night, probably 95 per cent of [of the classes] is that South Asian community, at all ages … trying to get their balance and make some strides."

Participation for other ethnic groups has been stagnant of late, but Brampton Hockey now attracts 150 to 200 new South Asian recruits every year.

So where does all this lead? My month in Brampton leaves me optimistic. Critics say too much has been done to accommodate newcomers, but I saw many indications this is becoming a two-way street.

Despite all the evidence of insular self-sufficiency and isolation, the Sikhs are making clear attempts to reach out.

For example, the Sikh Activist Network is a youth organization that, in part, attempts to correct stereotypes by organizing community events, such as concerts and art exhibitions. Its members include lawyer Gurratan Singh (a dead ringer for older brother Jagmeet, who represents a local riding in the Ontario Legislature for the New Democratic Party), who has a background in religious studies and says he frequently participates in inter-faith gatherings.

Harpal Singh is on the same page. Being Sikh helped him break into trucking, but he is no advocate of enclave thinking.

Since buying his house in 1997, he has watched his neighbourhood transform. It is now predominantly South Asian, yet he considers himself closer to next-door neighbour Frank Arruga than anyone else on his street. Of Portuguese descent, Mr. Arruga is often on call to step in at home when his friend is on the road.

When the former banker from Punjab thinks of the future, he sets his sights well beyond the confines of "Singhdale."

On my second visit to the Singh household, youngest daughter Simar, 7, excitedly produces a Mother's Day card she made in class and, in a sing-song voice, reads out the photocopied poem glued inside.

"I don't know what all of it means yet," she says with a grin, then races into the family room to watch India's Dancing Superstar with her grandparents and sister.

And why is the girl attending a French-language school when she already speaks English, Punjabi and Hindi, the latter two picked up mostly from her grandparents?

Mr. Singh doesn't want to live on a monocultural island – but he has even higher aspirations for Simar and her generation.

"We were thinking," he says, "because it's a bilingual country … she needs another language too."

Especially "in case she wants to have a political office."

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe