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

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.”

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