Downtown vs. Suburbs: Yes, It’s An Ethnic Thing

By Denise Balkissoon

When people talk about the Great Downtown/Suburb Divide, they are also talking about ethnicity.

Don’t agree? Educate yourself on the GTA’s demographics with this extremely handy page from the blog Pundit’s Guide, which cross references long-census data with federal political ridings.

Scarborough Rouge-River (where I grew up) has the highest non-white population in all of Canada. The GTA riding with the highest population of Chinese people is Scarborough-Agincourt. South Asians are most numerous in Brampton-Gore-Malton. Those who checked “Black” and “Latin American” on the census are most populous in York South-Weston, in central Etobicoke*, while Southeast Asians are abundant in York West, a bit north. The largest congregation of Filipinos is in Scarborough Centre, while Arabs prefer Mississauga-Erindale, and West Asians and Koreans represent Willowdale.

The only “visible minority” (ugh, hate that term) group counted by the Canadian census which has more members in downtown Toronto than in the ‘burbs are the Japanese. Toronto Centre is their most populous GTA riding—it’s 19 on the list, after 18 areas in British Columbia and Alberta.

The Suburbs vs. Downtown conversation is also about income, since it’s long been known that the outer 416 has a higher concentration of poverty than downtown. In this city at this time, class always has an ethnic angle.

After last fall’s municipal election, when downtowners stung by Rob Ford’s ascendance were circling their wagons, they seemed to take comfort by trashing the stereotypical suburbanite: a gas-guzzling art-hater laughing it up in a big backyard. Ford notwithstanding, that’s not necessarily who an outer 416 suburbanite is. But it’s definitely confusing that the people with the most to lose from service-cutting governments like that led by Rob Ford—poor people of colour—seem to have voted for him.

“The Fords misled people to thinking there was gravy,” says Avvy Go, a member of Colour of Poverty, a four-year-old campaign to educated Ontarians about the racialization of poverty in the province. Last fall, Colour of Poverty gave each mayoral candidate a grade on their “race report card,” noting the candidates’ history and their stances on transit, housing and employment equity. Rob Ford got an F.

“Yes, people in the suburbs voted for a government that would cut services that they need,” says Go, who recommends that we all read The Trouble With Billionaires. “Some politicians are very skilled in dumbing down, picking an overly simplistic portrayal of the problem.” When $60 equals a week of groceries for your family, cutting the vehicle registration tax seems like a good idea. Ford is to blame, and voters are to blame, but also to blame are the mayor’s losing opponents, who obviously did not do a very good job explaining their own platforms, or picking his apart. And really, there are downtowners that drive and suburbanites that always loathed Ford. More than anything, the Harris Tories divide-and-conquer amalgamation plan is still succeeding, over a decade later.

The role of ethnicity, income and the 416/905 divide is a hot topic among politicos. Suburban Dream-type suburbanites are living in the 905, and they, too, are largely non-white (white people who want a slice of backyard are apparently skipping over the 905 in favour of exurban paradises). The erosion of ironclad Liberal support among immigrant groups is making it easier for both the Conservatives and the Ontario PCs to live without winning votes in Toronto, and to win those 905 votes, they’re playing the race card without shame. Brampton has the highest income of all of the GTA cities, and politicians are falling over themselves kissing brown ass out there.

This week, we’re talking race, ethnicity, 416 and 905 on the Ethnic Aisle. I don’t know exactly what it means, but I know that it matters.

*Thanks to Rob Salerno and Dave Scrivener for the fact check here. York isn’t Etobicoke. I don’t consider it downtown…I guess we should discuss the role of “midtown” in all of this.

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17 thoughts on “Downtown vs. Suburbs: Yes, It’s An Ethnic Thing

  1. Isn’t Scarborough-Agincourt middle class? The Chinese in Toronto are typically middle class, no? Ditto for the Koreans in Willowdale. And what about the wealthy Chinese Canadians who live in the Bridle Path area? As for this CBC girl, I’m more downtown/midtown than exburbs…

  2. Pingback: #bramptongirls | The Ashcan

    • Maybe I wasn’t specific enough, but I’m looking at stats in the February 2011 Toronto Life that say Brampton has the highest median household income – $72,402. Mississauga is second at $71, 393, and Toronto is $52, 833. – Denise

  3. There are also a lot of white immigrant groups in Toronto – such as the Portuguese and Polish communities – that have also made the shift from inner/downtown to suburbs. They don’t face the same racial issues, but they’re not “Canadians” either, so not sure where they fit in here.

  4. “More than anything, the Harris Tories divide-and-conquer amalgamation plan is still succeeding, over a decade later.” I was AWOL during the days of Harris and Lastman and have always been intrigued by amalgamation. Could you elaborate on the divide and conquer theory? – Jafra

    • Well, off the top of my head, prior to amalgamation, there were the six boroughs, and then Metro council. So you could vote for one councillor who you thought could help you with micro day-to-day stuff (grass, garbage, etc.) and one who you thought would be good at macro, regional stuff (transit, environment, etc.). The megacity forces councillors to try and balance their local needs with regional needs — and so, for example, this whole thing about not eliminating snow shoveling in Etobicoke and Scarborough. It’s totally unfair and an easy way for the city as a whole to save money (note: I think seniors and disabled people should get city shoveling) but suburban councillors know voting to kill it would anger their local constituents. Similarly, the current value assessment battle ended up at megacity council, where downtown councillors knew that voting for a new property tax system would not make their residents happy.

      Anyone who’s paying attention has known for a while that, for whatever reason, downtown skews leftier than elsewhere. Part of amalgamation and the strategy as a whole was/is, in my opinion, to exacerbate those differences for political gain. – Denise

      • gosh, i had always been somewhat pro-amalgamation. my rationale being the prevention of fiefdoms. my former borough has been in steady decline due to documented corruption. but I was listening to metro morning this morning and a source from the separate school board said something about amalgamation costing a fortune, but not a penny saved? so disappointing.

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  6. Pingback: [URBAN NOTE] Two links on urban-suburban ethnic divides in Toronto | A Bit More Detail

  7. Okay different ethnic groups live in different parts of the GTA, and Old Toronto (incorrectly referred to as downtown) contains mostly whites. So what?! Who cares?! In most parts of Old Toronto there is a really great mix of different ethnicities and everyone seems to get along spectacularly and with very little ghettoization. I think that’s something to be proud of -and I wish the same could be said of the other areas in Toronto and the GTA you mention.

    From my experience when people talk about the Great Downtown/Suburb Divide, they’re not talking about ethnicity at all, but are usually talking about the two different cultures: the urban culture, and the suburban culture.

    When it comes to Rob Ford, he began his administration by drawing a line in the sand between the two cultures deriding those from Old Toronto (“downtowners as you would call them”) as elitists and as bicycle riding, latte sipping pinkos. Well you know what? We’re not all lefties. We’re not all pinkos. We don’t all ride bicycles. But we did build this city. Hear me now -Old Toronto is the heart and soul of Toronto which is the heart and soul of the GTA, which is the heart and soul of the Golden Horseshoe, Southern Ontario and possibly even beyond!

    So people like to live out in the burbs -well good for them, I’m happy for them, but really who cares? Toronto was not built up around the burbs, the burbs were built up around Toronto.
    You think Toronto is a world class city because of Scarborough, Etobicoke or North York? Come on.

    And suggesting that the real issue dividing urbanites and suburbanites is ethnicity is ridiculous. The real issue is that we now have an administration with so much disdain for the people of Old Toronto that he will go lengths to ridicule us and make us feel inferior (he’s white by the way).

    Toronto is nothing without its core and amalgamation was forced upon us all by the province and beyond our will. This Ford administration has divided this city and has shown us that suburbanites care about one thing: reducing taxes. Okay, got it loud and clear. But you know what Urbanites also care about one thing and that is growing our city to be better and more spectacular.

    This has nothing to do with race or ethnicity and suggesting it does just muddies the water and takes the focus away from the real problem.

  8. Pingback: Because Urbanists are Predominantly White, And Don’t Understand Their Priviledge | Institute for the Radical Suburb

  9. Great article. Scarborough is pretty much becoming all Tamil now. There are little pockets of White people im the guild by the water and scattered in strange little nooks. Chinese people are holding on but losing grip year by year in “asiancourt.” Formerly Black and Filipino Malvern is amazingly Tamil. I think Black people who used to live in scarb are now in Durham. It’s an interesting dynamic.

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