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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Part 11: One long billboard to tolerance

By KEN WIWA
Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 30, 2003

Part 3

I left Sawa and doubled back on myself to make a mental note of the range of cultures between Ossington and Christie. It confirms poet Dionne Brand's simple evocation of these streets: "Selam Restaurant, Jeonghhysa Buddhist Temple, Oneda's Market, West Indian and Latin America Foods, Afro Sound, Lalibela Ethiopian Cuisine, Longo's Vegetable and Fruits, Astoria Athens Restaurant, Coffee Time, Star Falafel, Vince Gasparos Meats, Africa Wings Travel, PCI House-Internet Cafe, Kholsa Travel, Greek Credit Union, Menalon, Asmaria Restaurant and Bar, Sawa, Wing Po Variety, Ramon Humeres - Dentist, Universal Beauty Supply."

"In a new city," Brand wrote in the same piece, "there are ghosts of old cities. There are lies and re-creations."

Mi Linda Managua is one of those recreations. I have never been to Nicaragua but the modest furniture, the mud-red colour of the walls and the giant television at the back of the restaurant feel authentic.

"I see myself as 100-per-cent Nicaraguan," says Liza-Maria Peneda-Lopez, a 20-year-old waitress at her sister's restaurant, who came to Canada at the age of four. She learned English from television and at school, but she also grew up speaking and writing perfect Spanish. "You know what the funny thing is that people come in here and say, 'Oh my gawd your accent. You have a perfect Nicaraguan accent'," she said in a perfectly breathless and treacly North American falsetto.

"Once you cross from Nicaragua to Costa Rica," she continued, "there's such a big difference in accent and they're both Spanish languages. But our accent is so typical — like the way we use the words and the way we use, like, sayings.

"Like, I can tell you a joke and whatever, and all that would be, like, really funny, because people would come here and say, like, 'I just came from there and you know it's amazing.' "

As I left Ms. Peneda-Lopez in her memories of Nicaragua and crossed back into North America, I began to wonder about the dialogue between Canada and the countries its immigrants come from. The bargain of multiculturalism is that the newcomer gets to keep his or her culture — but what is the relationship between this culture and Canada? When does the old country or culture lose its influence and the immigrant begin to speak Canadian? Or is "Canadian" the sum of its immigrant voices?

When you walk Bloor Street you get a palpable sense of its panorama, of the bright colours at one end bleeding and eventually blending into the downtown core. The juncture of Bloor and Spadina marks a kind of watershed, a boundary between new Canada and old Canada. The kaleidoscope of colour gives way to the sober buildings of the University of Toronto.

On the southwest corner of Bloor and Spadina is the unfinished hulk of a sleek glass building. The $10-million renovation of the Jewish Community Centre (JCC) is almost complete. When it is done it will house an Internet centre, a franchise of the ubiquitous Second Cup, and facilities for a theatre, fitness room, rooftop parties, and a Jewish daycare centre.

On a grass verge opposite the JCC, I sat discussing the renovation with 24-year-old Adam Marrus, who came to Canada from England as a four-year-old and has spent his life since then in the neighbourhood.

"I've been coming to JCC for years," he said. "I went to nursery school here, my mother, aunts and uncles have been coming for years. It's like a second home to me."

The renovation is happening at an "exciting time," he says, concurring with the suggestion that the JCC's reinvention is a reflection of the shifting preoccupations within the Jewish community. "Some people see it as a cultural centre and others see it as an athletic centre."

Skittish about whether he is religious ("That's rather a personal question"), Mr. Marrus nevertheless protests that he doesn't see himself as only one thing or only another. "As events arise my Judaism may come to the forefront. In other cases I feel proud to be Canadian. I don't feel I have to choose."

Again, two masters — this time the religious and the secular. And again, I wonder whether the rallying cry of peace, order and good government is enough to hold all these stories together. What will be the thread that knits all these masters?

I got my answer as I came to the end of Bloor Street, where I ran into a strident voice and advocate for a brand new Canada in the guise of an Indian-Canadian who had spent the first twenty years of his life pretending he was German.

Rahul Raj grew up in Kitchener, Ont., which he cheerfully informs me has the largest Oktoberfest outside Germany. It wasn't until he arrived at University in Toronto as a 21-year-old in 1997 that Mr. Raj began to discover himself.

"I had to make a choice: Hang out with the visible minority or the majority," he recalled. The decision was made when he discovered there were other East Indians who had grown up under the same conditions as him, giving him a new perspective on the community.

He even started to date from his own culture. "I'd never have dreamed of marrying an Indian girl as a child, it was too complicated. I associated Indians with recent immigrants who held on to old beliefs. I considered myself hybrid, but when I moved to Toronto I found that there were cool Indian girls that were hybrid."

Mr. Raj used to market Procter & Gamble products for a living, but he had an epiphany of sorts when he visited India. Watching his grandmother giving alms to beggars inspired him to start thinking of ways to hitch a social vision to his commercial skills. He gave up the day job and set up Mealexchange, an innovative project that allows students on 36 campuses to donate their unused meal points to charity.

Paradoxically, this reaquaintance with his long-lost self triggered Mr. Raj's evangelical belief in Canada. He sees it as a country with a social vision, one that practises capitalism with a human face.

"The culture of most countries is like a brand," he enthused, his marketing background coming to the fore. "A brand has core values that are common to most users but the Canadian brand is not 'affiliated' " — not yet something that ties everyone together, he contended.

Mr. Raj is a Leader for Change Fellow at the Maytree Foundation at Bloor and Avenue Road, an intersection that appears to be entirely old Canada, anchored as it is by the Royal Ontario Museum and expensive boutiques. The Maytree is a charity that works to better integrate immigrants into Canada, and the Leaders for Change programme is an initiative that identifies leaders and leading organizations that have the capacity to make change and advance the common good.

"With immigrant families you sacrifice not for Canada but for family, so I took this concept and turned it on its head," he said, explaining his pitch for branding Canada as a country where sacrifices are made for the common good.

"Would a Canadian have made this decision? I don't know. I'm taking Indian values and applying them to a Canadian reality. I feel I am representative of this fusion, I am looking to apply best practices from our ancestors to the problems of today.

"At the periphery you have poverty," he said, pointing down Bloor Street. "At the core you have institutions. What brings them together? You have to find a way to connect those with a will and ideas with those with the money."

I left Mr. Raj to the task of remaking Canada in his fused image and headed back onto Bloor. I'd come to the end of a beginning and it occurred to me that perhaps the story for this generation of Canadians has barely started.

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