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How Brampton demonstrates the new vision of Canada Add to ...

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.

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