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Why do so many Canadians see ethnic enclaves as a threat?

Every week at the CBC I hear a lot of stories on the radio program I host. This week, this one stuck:

Lennie Haye recently moved his family to Canada from the Caribbean, because he no longer felt safe in Jamaica. "We made a calculated decision to come to Vancouver and not Toronto – which we have been to – really, because we're trying to escape from that enclave; from that set of Caribbean people that were there."

They settled in North Vancouver. For the first time in his life, Mr. Haye says he felt different. "It was my first instance of even feeling like a black man. Before, I never even noticed I was black. I'm going down to the store and I see this woman clutching her purse and looking over her shoulder hurrying up, and I started doing the same – looking behind me, not realizing that I was the person she was feeling threatened by."

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Mr. Haye is quick to acknowledge the complicated issues of race, fear and stereotypes – but his conclusion is what I found most interesting. "If had to do it all again, I would choose to live in an enclave because it's been particularly difficult to bridge the barriers that are put in front of you. The lack of trust, not being given the benefit of the doubt."

Mr. Haye was speaking at a CBC public forum this week about the value and the challenges of "ethnic enclaves." Yes, many people objected to the term – that's another issue. We needed to call it something.

We were focusing on the two biggest areas of the Lower Mainland, settled by the two predominant, non-white ethnic groups – Chinese people in Richmond and South Asians in Surrey.

Mr. Haye's story was unexpected.

Ethnic enclaves are certainly nothing new. Most began not as voluntary settlements but as the place new immigrants, especially visible minorities, were forced to go because white Vancouver didn't want them.

Today, of course, they are vital commercial and cultural precincts that new immigrants gravitate toward for obvious reasons. People there speak the same language. They have the same customs, traditions and food.

(I know none of this firsthand, by the way. My family has been here since the mid-1800s, but has somehow convinced each new generation that we all arrived from Ireland about 15 minutes ago.)

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But why do so many Canadians, especially those who are not "visible minorities," see ethnic enclaves as a threat? Is it the way immigrant groups reshape cities or neighbourhoods? Is it that the enclaves grow in size and become entrenched or dominant, pushing established residents (who may also be ethnic groups) aside? Or is it simply fear of the unfamiliar – the smells, the non-English signage?

Henry Yu, who teaches a course at UBC on Asian migrant communities, says the problem is one of perception. "Often the people who see it as a problem are those who are used to a norm where everybody speaks English, most are of a European background, and others are somehow threatening of the social order."

Prof. Yu says any threat posed by ethnic enclaves is overblown. And he says Vancouver is one of the least racially segregated cities in North America.

So how could they be a threat?

The perception from outside the enclaves, according to some of the feedback we received, is that the enclave is a snub. That "these people" choose to move here, but not to live among other Canadians or adopt our customs, traditions or even our language. They don't want to become "real Canadians," we heard.

"Immigrants not integrating into English Canada are the major cause of the destruction of English Canadian culture," wrote one listener, after the forum. It was a sadly typical view.

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We like to think of ourselves as a cosmopolitan, multicultural and multiracial city where all are welcome – but only to a point. Sure we'll enjoy an authentic ethnic meal, but we'd better be able to read the menu.

You can speak Cantonese on the SkyTrain, just don't do it too loudly. And if a business in Richmond has a Chinese-only sign, it obviously means they don't want me as a customer.

If any of this is an actual problem, Henry Yu says mandating English isn't the solution.

"An inclusive city embraces everybody," he says – those of us who only speak Mandarin, and those of who only speak English.

And then this radical idea: "Maybe it's about making friends that can speak multiple languages." Does it seem alien to you to walk into a Korean restaurant where everybody speaks only Korean? "Well, welcome to the experience of an immigrant," he says, "coming to a place where everything is in English."

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver. @cbcstephenquinn

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