For a few days in June, Toronto went Bollywood. The Premier hobnobbed with Indian film idols arriving for a big awards gala. The mayor welcomed megastar Shahrukh Khan to City Hall. Fans lapped it up.
It was a reminder not just of the glamour and reach of Indian popular culture, but of the dramatic growth in Toronto's Indian community and other groups from South Asia. Members of this community are already the biggest visible-minority group in the Greater Toronto Area. There were 684,000 as of the 2006 census, a couple of hundred thousand more than the second biggest group: Chinese.
Their numbers are expected to nearly triple by 2031, reaching around 2.1 million. By that time, a Statistics Canada report said last year, close to one in four people in the Toronto area will be of South Asian background. Chinese, by contrast, would number 1.1 million, double the current figure.
This is a huge demographic shift for Toronto. Traditionally, Vancouver was the principal destination for South Asian immigrants, mostly Sikhs from the Punjab. But as Canada took in more people from India – the second biggest source of newcomers, after China, since the mid-1990s – they flooded into Toronto. More than 140,000 arrived between 1986 and 1995, and nearly double that – 266,000 – between 1996 and 2006. High birth rates have bolstered their numbers. More than half of all Indian immigrants to Canada now live in Toronto.
Coming first to downtown, then spreading out to the suburbs and exurbs, they are concentrated in the city's shoulders to the northwest (Mississauga and Brampton) and northeast (Scarborough and Markham). Those communities have been transformed in their look and feel, with malls, temples, mosques and gurdwaras popping up among the gas stations and subdivisions.
"I've seen tremendous changes," said businessman Pradeep Sood, who moved to Unionville in Markham when it was still a sleepy, mostly white rural town. "Now I can get Indian groceries a stone's throw from where I am. I can count at least seven or eight Indian restaurants within a two-mile radius of my house."
Along with expanding in numbers, Toronto's South Asians have grown more diverse. Sikhs still make up about 40 per cent (compared with 80 per cent in Vancouver), but that proportion has been dropping as immigrants from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and from other parts of India like Gujarat and Tamil Nadu stream in. As a result, the dominance of Punjabi as the principal language has been waning.
The community is growing more skilled, too. In 1980, 70 per cent of Indian immigrants to Canada spoke neither English nor French. Now 60 per cent have a command of English. Partly because of changed immigration rules, a far larger share of South Asians now arrive as skilled workers, many with advanced degrees.
But that has not always resulted in economic success. A Statscan study reports that "Indian immigrants include a significantly higher proportion of low-income families and unemployed adults compared with the Canadian-born population." Chinese immigrants tend to have more success, more quickly.
Ratna Omidvar, president of the Maytree Foundation, a social agency, says that the Toronto community is much like India itself, divided into solitudes of wealth and poverty. Many Indian immigrants are thriving on Bay Street, in small businesses or in the university world, but there are also "growing communities of isolation and poverty and marginalization."
The challenge for Toronto is the same as the challenge for India and other rapidly developing countries: to ensure that success is shared by all.