Racial harmony out of tune

In Features /

By Sheila Avari

A large crowd turns out to celebrate diversity at Lester B. Pearson Collegiate Institute’s International Night in Malvern. Once inside the gym, hundreds of students cheer on the singers and dancers clothed in a wide array of ethnic dress. But after the show, they gather outside in the Malvern school’s parking lot to pick fights with members of different ethnic groups. Security officers are offered to intervene. The whole purpose of the night is lost.

This has happened every April for the past seven years.

Sudha Krishna first moved to Malvern when he was six years old, during the provincial government’s attempt to promote multiculturalism in the undeveloped area. He remembers the dirt roads, the barns and silos on every corner, the farmers who ploughed the fields and the tick forests that surrounded his mom on Hatchet Place. He also remembers having school friends of diverse backgrounds. That was more than 20 years ago.

“There were Indians, blacks, Chinese and white people,” he says. “It was a nice healthy mix of people.”

The community of Malvern used to include the area between Markham Road and Pickering Town Line, from Steeles Avenue to Highway 401. It has since grown. It now stretches from Brimley Road in the west to Pickering Town Line in the east, with the north-south boundaries remaining the same.

Although he no lingering lives in Malvern, Krishna still visits. But things are different in his old neighbourhood.

“When I see all these people, I don’t like that feeling because it is not what I grew up with,” he says. “There’s no true mosaic, just shades of chocolate.”

“These people” are mainly from East Asia, the Caribbean and South Asia. At 42 per cent non-white, Scarborough-Malvern is now how to more racial minorities than any other Toronto neighbourhood.

Bas Balkissoon, city councilor for Scarborough-Malvern and a native of Trinidad, points out that the Caribbean and Asian people who remained in the neighbourhood attracted others to Malvern. The presence of family and friends as well as the established ethnic and sociocultural infrastructures such as grocery stores, entertainment, media and community organizations also add to the neighbourhood’s appeal.

The Malvern Town Centre, located in the heart of the community at the corner of Neilson and Tapscott Roads, houses a food court that reflects the change in the community’s cultural demographics. Rani’s Taste of India serves hot and spicy Indian dishes. Next door, Rock ‘n’ Soul drums out calypso music, much to the delight of the food court’s occupants.

In the early 1970s, Malvern was one of the first neighbourhoods to welcome the huge influx of immigrants under the “Homeownership Made Easy” plan. This plan also attracted many non-immigrant families. Because the pioneers at Malvern were young families with diverse ethnic backgrounds, the neighourhood seemed to hold the promise of multiculturalism.

Things have changed.

Racial harmony no longer exists in Malvern or in the area’s four high schools: Lester B. Pearson Collegiate Institute, Albert Campbell Collegiate Institute, Francis Libermann Catholic High School and Mother Teresa Catholic Secondary School.

When Krishna attended Pearson in Malvern between 1980 and 1985, the school’s population was mixed. More importantly to him was that everybody socialized with each other.

I had a huge array of people of different cultures who were my friends,” he explains. “That was pretty common.”

It is now more common to see segregation at Pearson.

Nashir Thakor, 17, is in his OAC year at Pearson. He was born and raised in Malvern, He says cultural segregation exists because a few ethnic groups dominate the school.

“The browns stay with the blacks but they also stay with the Sri Lankans,” he says, admitting he doesn’t have any close friends who aren’t racial minorities. “All the coloured people stick together.”

Thakor says the white people feel intimidated because of their low numbers in the school and in the community.

Chris Ruttkay, 21, agrees. Ruttkay, one of the few white people at Pearson, saw the population of the school move toward cultural cliques.

“I think everything was really segregated,” he says. “You had the Indians hanging around together and then in the same cafeteria you’d also have the black guys — they’d occupy another part. The Sri Lankans were on the ramp and the few whites were on the table.”

Ruttkay says he was one of the few Pearson students who mingled and made friendships with people of different cultural backgrounds.

“It was like two polar groups and I had to kind of shoot back and forth,” he says. But at lunchtime, Ruttkay was drawn toward the “white table.” He admits gravitating to this group when he noticed his non-white friends meeting more people of their race.

Lalitha Dixit, 20, a recent graduate from Albert Campbell, says she turned to other young people with the same ethnic background because they understood her culture. In grade school, her friends came from mixed backgrounds. But her non-Indian friends mocked her because of her cultural traditions. They didn’t understand why her parents hung pictures of religious idols on the wall or why her mother wore saris and not pants.

Dixit doesn’t blame them for ridiculing her. They weren’t being racist, she says. They were just too young to understand.

But when Krishna was in high school, cultural cliques were not an issue. It was not uncommon to see blacks, East Indians, Europeans, West Indians, Asians and Filipinos together in one yearbook photo, smiling.

“Overall, life at Pearson is feeling welcome and making new friends with the whole world,” reads a statement from an old yearbook.

Recent editions of the yearbook include photos of the “Pak-Posse,” a group of young people from Pakistan and Indian, as well as others with brown skin.

Krishna is disappointed to see Pearson like that now.

“It’s sad, not because I don’t think people should have pride in their ethnicity. It’s sad because I don’t think that is what multiculturalism is all about.”

Keith Crysler, the principal at Pearson, denies separation along colour lines exists at his school. He does acknowledge, however, that it could be a “potentially great problem.”

Crysler takes pride in his school and explains that the student body has recently created a multicultural club to promote its ethnic diversity.

“Attempts are being made (to promote multicultural) and by and large they are quite successful,” Crysler says.

Along with students groups, he believes a school-wide policy may help to encourage mixing among students.

But friendships or even socializing between different ethnic groups cannot be forced.

“If authority says mix and enjoy the multiculturalism, students would segregate and enjoy the rebellion,” Ryerson sociology professor Mustafa Koc says.

At least some students disagree. They think educators should try to promote events geared toward integration, such as international nights to celebrate multiculturalism.

But this doesn’t always work.

Glenn Hauck, a former student at Mother Teresa Catholic School, recalls seeing the same segregation and cliques at his school

If one ethnic group had claimed an area of the school, every knew “that was their area,” Hauck says.

It’s unfortunate there is less mixing between cultural groups, says Balkissoon.

“There’s much to be learned about other people’s cultures and social lifestyle. There’s much to be learned from other people’s richness,” he says. “We could all be a richer society if we get to know each other’s religion and foods that we eat. It would help.”

Krishna says the cultural diversity he grew up with made him a better person.

“I would go to my Filipino friend’s house and understand, observe, absorb and learn about his culture,” he explains. “It gave me a greater tolerance and a greater appreciation of diversity.”

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