Pierre Elliott Trudeau:
City's immigrants are his biggest fans
Saturday, September 30, 2000
TORONTO -- In the West Indian cosmetic shops, the pizza parlours of Little Italy or a parking-lot booth in which a Tanzanian exile has worked for 13 years, the feeling was the same yesterday: this city's immigrants feel they owe their life in Canada to Pierre Trudeau.
"You see how Toronto has changed, with all these multicultural peoples?" asked Sultanali Bharwani, 76, who emigrated from Tanzania in 1984, just before Mr. Trudeau stepped down as prime minister. "We don't hate each other. That was Trudeau."
On the streets of this most multiethnic and multiracial of Canada's cities, whether the historians agree or not with Mr. Bharwani is beside the point. Mr. Trudeau is the personification of the open border and tolerant heart.
Mr. Bharwani was a photographer in Tanzania, who shot the likes of cabinet ministers.
But he didn't like the country's politics, and he came to Canada where he has worked as a parking-lot attendant ever since.
"I liked a free country, you know. I liked to stay in this world like a bird. You can fly anywhere, you can do anything."
He stressed the late prime minister's kindness. "I wrote him a letter and he gave me a very good reply. I am not afraid, I can tell anything to Trudeau and he will not forget me. He will reply and be kind and he will guide me."
The city's transformation has come with startling swiftness.
In 1961, visible minorities made up just 3 per cent of the city's population; by 1996, they were 42 per cent of the more than four million people in the greater Toronto area, and 47.6 per cent of Toronto residents were foreign-born.
By comparison, 35 per cent of the residents in the Vancouver census metropolitan area and 18 per cent of residents of the Montreal area are foreign-born.
(In the United States, Miami had the highest concentration of foreign-born residents in 1990 at 33.6 per cent. New York was just 19.7 per cent.)
Racism and discrimination in Canada's immigration laws are an old story. Early in the century there was a head tax on the Chinese, and later a near-total ban on immigrants from China.
When the country gave refuge to 100 Armenian orphans of the Turkish genocide in 1915-16, the move was called "Canada's noble experiment."
The country closed its door to many desperate, would-be Jewish refugees from Europe between 1933 and 1948. And immigration from non-white parts of the globe was simply beyond the pale.
According to historian Desmond Morton, this began to change in the late 1940s, when then-prime minister Mackenzie King opened the door to displaced persons such as Jews, Ukrainians and Poles.
In the 1950s, West Indian women could enter as domestics, and were eventually able to send for their husbands and children.
Liberalization continued in the 1960s and the Trudeau government in 1972 created a system that Prof. Morton calls "race-neutral:" It awarded so many points for education, job qualifications and so on.
"Trudeau, like many Canadians, but by no means all in his day, was free of the racial prejudice that his ancestors and certainly mine would possess," said Prof. Morton, the director of the McGill University Institute for Studies of Canada.
"He had shrunk the world through his own experience" -- travels through China and elsewhere in his youth -- and recognized the contributions others could make, even if not everyone else did, he said.
"That, I guess, is the glory of his kind of prime ministership: He didn't give a goddamn what people said if [what he was doing] was right."
On that point, the historians and the street agree.
Anthony McLarty, the owner of Sundae's Cafe, on a strip of Bathurst Street just north of Bloor with several West Indian shops, said, "I really loved him. I respected him a lot. He was probably the best prime minister we had because he just didn't take any shit. And the fact that he made friends with people like [former Jamaican prime minister] Michael Manley and [Cuban President Fidel] Castro, I thought that was amazing."
Mr. McLarty, who came from Jamaica, added, "Probably if you talk to most black people, they're Liberals, at least their parents are."
Part of Mr. Trudeau's legacy is the official policy of multiculturalism, dating from 1971, which has long been controversial, with critics arguing that it stands in the way of a truly Canadian culture by encouraging immigrants to maintain their traditions.
But there is another multiculturalism, a purely unofficial one that is synonymous with the notion of fairness and tolerance. Delma Davy, 30, who came to Canada from Jamaica at age six, called Mr. Trudeau "the root of why Canada is multicultural. We get along. It's wonderful. There's no cliques fighting against other cliques. It's not like the States. I don't see racism as a problem, I honestly don't."