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Every day, immigrants are busting myths and building Canada

Immigrants steal our jobs, says the yahoo brigade in this season of Trump. Even in tolerant Toronto, there are those who spout this tired old myth.

I wish they could meet my friend Sahba. Sahba Fotovat lives two doors up from me, in a Victorian semi that she bought with her partner Babak Amouoghli. She came to Canada at the age of nine. Her family left revolutionary Iran, worn down by the long war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, in 1988. Like millions before him, her father arrived with little but ingenuity, drive and a thirst to build something.

An engineer with experience in food processing, Moe Fotovat started off making small batches of nougat, the chewy candy popular back home. He went door to door, trying to persuade shopkeepers to carry it. Friends told him he was deluding himself. He persevered and went on to found a thriving business making fruit-and-nut bars. The whole family pitched in, including Ms. Fotovat, her brother and sister.

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When he split with his business partner in 2012, the family faced a crossroads. Should they all go their separate ways, into new jobs and endeavours?

With manufacturing in their blood, the kids decided that, instead, they would start a new company that would take the production of healthy snacks to a new level. Under the label MadeGood, the snacks would be organic, gluten-free and top-eight-allergen-free. Oh, and they would be delicious.

Riverside Natural Foods, launched just three years ago this August, began with one syrup kettle, a few baking trays and just 10 employees. Today it has 100. The Riverside plant near York University has production lines running from the pre-dawn hours till past midnight in two buildings, with a third expected to open in January. MadeGood bars are popping up everywhere from corner stores to major supermarkets. Riverside clients include giants like Loblaws, Costco and Whole Foods. "It's been quite a ride," says Ms. Fotovat.

Her brother Nima is company president, her sister Salma is in charge of the supply chain. She is head of operations. She arrives at the plant every weekday around 7 a.m. After scrubbing her hands, putting on a lab coat and pulling a net over her hair, she walks onto the floor to see how things are going. In one part of the plant, workers are pouring oats into a mixing machine; in another, a group of women are packing snacks into boxes for shipment; in another, a big ultrasonic cutting machine is dividing a sheet of cooked oats into bars.

With production ramping up so fast, the company is always bringing in new, more sophisticated machinery from Italy, Germany or the United States. But Ms. Fotovat says the key to its success, and the hope for its future, is the people.

She relies on their quick wits to fix production glitches and help figure out how to do things better. "What I've learned over the years is you've got to give people time to show what they can do," she says. "You don't think they can do it and then they blow your mind."

The Riverside staff is a typical Toronto mix. One manager comes from Venezuela, another from Peru. Most of the workers on the floor come from the Philippines. Ms. Fotovat hired many through a temp agency.

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One of her finds was Renato Resurreccion, who walked in the door as a temp and now manages 20 to 30 people on the morning shift. Another is Fernando Yarcia, who oversees the mixing machine. "He just cares," says Ms. Fotovat. "If he sees a piece of garbage on the floor, he's the one who will pick it up and put it in the garbage." He wept when he heard the company was hiring him on full time.

Riverside doesn't just want to be a big company. It wants to be a model company, where employees feel that they have a stake and share in its success. It is the kind of place where they remember your birthday and listen to your ideas.

In other words, it is about as far as you could imagine from the sweatshop that Trump fans and their Canadian cousins have in mind when they complain about how immigration is wrecking everything. Here is a business that rather than lowering standards and undercutting more established firms is setting high standards for innovation and creativity, while going out of its way to treat its employees right.

A paper by University of Waterloo professor Bessma Momani for this week's 6 Degrees Citizen Space event in Toronto finds that "Canadian immigrants are more likely than Canadian-born people to start their own businesses. They employ other Canadians, innovate new products and services, disrupt business as usual and generate wealth and prosperity for Canada and all Canadians."

Ms. Fotovat's dad isn't much involved in the business now, though he comes down to the plant to emcee the annual party in December. He spends a lot of his time on charitable works, like building a girls' school in Iran.

But his example inspires his kids. Ms. Fotovat wants Riverside to get better and better. She wants to create a recognized Canadian brand. She wants to build a company that would make him proud. She is doing it every day, busting a myth or two as she goes.

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More

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