Skip to main content

Forty-six new Canadians were sworn in during a citizenship ceremony at Seneca College in Markham.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

If you want to show visitors the miracle of Toronto's diversity, don't take them downtown. Take them to Markham. The booming northeastern suburb is the most diverse place in Canada.

Statistics Canada's National Household Survey showed that, as of 2011, 72.3 per cent of Markham residents were "visible minorities." Places like this make nonsense of the term. Pale-skinned people are the ones that stick out here. Markham has a far bigger proportion of visible minority residents than the City of Toronto proper (49.1 per cent). It puts other famous immigrant magnets such as Brampton (66.4 per cent), Mississauga (53.7) and Richmond Hill (52.9) in the shade.

What is more, the visible minorities don't come from one community. Its diversity means more than a simple lack of white faces. People tend to see Markham, like neighbouring Richmond Hill, as overwhelmingly Chinese. The big Chinese malls like Peachtree Plaza at Kennedy and Highway 7 reinforce that impression.

But though Markham has 114,950 residents of Chinese descent – making up more than a third of the population and accounting for half of all visible-minority residents – it also has 57,375 South Asians, 9,715 blacks, 9,020 Filipinos, 6,185 West Asians, 3,400 Arabs, 3,160 Koreans, 2,750 Southeast Asians and 1,600 Latin Americans, according to the National Household Survey. Look at the figures for national affiliation, and Markham looks like even more of a rainbow. Among its 300,135 souls, 4,615 claim Polish descent, 4,240 Russian, 1,610 Romanian, 6,900 Greek, 13,130 Italian, 6,705 Jamaican, 2,485 Guyanese, 1,800 Egyptian, 600 South African, 6,525 Iranian, 14,175 Sri Lankan.

Among the smaller groups, 430 people list their background as Colombian, 235 as Belgian, 35 as Moldovan and, yes, 15 as Manx, from the Isle of Man in the British Isles. There are even 24,150 who claim an obscure descent known as Canadian.

What is most remarkable about all of this how unremarkable it has become. Change can be traumatic and few Canadian communities have gone through such rapid and dramatic change as Markham.

From a sleepy village settled by British, German and Swiss farmers in the 1800s, it grew to a postwar suburban town of quiet streets and neat lawns then a sprawling city of business parks, corporate headquarters, mega-malls and wide, heavily trafficked boulevards.

As recently as 1976, the population was just 56,000. By 1995, it had leapt to 161,000. At that time, projections showed it might double to 300,000 by 2021. It got there a decade early. Just between 2006 and 2011, Markham's population grew by 15. 3 per cent, three times the national average.

Visit Markham today and you see earth movers tearing up old corn fields for vast new subdivisions, showy new houses faced with fieldstone across the streets from modest 1960s bungalows, parking lots bristling with the marks of BMW, Lexus and Porsche.

Yet the city has taken it all in stride. It seems a long time ago – another era – when deputy mayor Carole Bell made headlines and angered the Chinese community in 1995 by complaining about all the Asian malls that were going up.

The municipal government positively boasts of the city's changed complexion. The cover of its Diversity Action Plan, called Everyone Welcome, shows laughing schoolchildren of every complexion running a foot race.

The benefits of diversity, it says, "are obvious; where else can one walk – in the malls, recreation centres, parks, schools, streets – and enjoy the pleasures and wisdom of so many traditions all at once? Markham is directly connected, through ties of history and family, to every corner of our globalized world."

Markham's diversity has become so natural, so commonplace that it hardly seems noteworthy to many of those who live there. At a citizenship ceremony at Seneca College this week, few seem to know it was Canada's most diverse community – or, for that matter, to care.

Steve Parmeshwar Mahant came to Canada with his family as a refugee from Guyana. His high school pals were from Saudi Arabia, Guyana and the Caribbean. When he went away to university in Peterborough, many of his friends were Caucasian. Now that he is back in Markham, he lives on a street with people from Cuba, Sri Lanka, the Caribbean and other places. "People get along very well," he says matter-of-factly. "As long as they're good neighbours, it's all good."

Eugene Chan, 29, arrived from Hong Kong 13 years ago and is "thrilled" to be taking the oath of citizenship, with former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson in attendance. He had no clue Markham holds the record for diversity. "I don't see any problem with it. I don't see any negatives. The city of Markham is a very peaceful city."

If people have complaints, they are mostly about things like traffic congestion, not the colour of their neighbours' skin.

Markham seems a world away from the downtown immigrant ghettos of the past, or for that matter from the low-income pockets of the downtown and the inner suburbs where many newcomers struggle to get by in today's Toronto. A report from the Wellesley Institute this month showed that 70 per cent of the immigrants surveyed in Toronto's east end reported individual income of less than $30,000 a year.

Many people come to Markham for jobs in "Canada's Hi-Tech Capital" (as the city styles itself), working in companies like IBM, Toshiba and Honeywell. Median household income as of 2010 was $86,000, well above the national figure of $61,000. Many come for the open spaces and big new houses, too. Sixty-four per cent of households live in detached houses, compared with the national average of 55 per cent.

Upwardly mobile, future-focused, Markham doesn't have time for the petty disputes of the past. It leans forward, moving at a run. "The suburbs and satellite towns are going to give us this energy – and it is terrific energy," says Ms. Clarkson, who has visited immigrant communities across the country. "People are coming here and they want to get ahead."

That, more than any fuzzy theoretical embrace of multiculturalism, is what makes Markham's amazing diversity work.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Steve Parmeshwar Mahant's surname. This version has been corrected.

Interact with The Globe