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Vancouver: From 'European' to 'Eurasian'


Source: The Vancouver Sun

Vancouver was once considered a "European" city. Now it's more accurate to call it "Eurasian."

In less than two generations, Vancouver has transformed from a city dominated by people of British, German and Italian origin to one in which people of Asian heritage make up the majority.

The demographic changes in this city of more than half a million people are most readily seen in the hundreds of restaurants serving Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Japanese, Arabic, Afghan, Malaysian and Korean food. But the changes go much deeper.

Since the early 1970s -after Canadian immigration laws made the country more open to Asians and multicultural policies were instituted - the city has developed a whole new personality, one that's attempting, in fits and starts, to fuse Atlantic and Pacific cultures.

"The makeup of the city has fundamentally changed" in the past few decades, says Baldwin Wong, a social planner with the City of Vancouver who specializes in ethnic diversity issues and helps develop programs for new immigrants.

Wong's own story illustrates the immigration trends of the past 40 years, since he was part of the first wave of Hong Kong residents who flew into the city to begin a new life in the early 1970s.

Statistics compiled by Vancouver city hall tell the story of the new Asian wave.

In 1971, three out of four of the city's 426,000 residents had English as their mother tongue.

Just six per cent of residents had Chinese as their mother tongue, while five per cent spoke German, three per cent grew up speaking Italian and three per cent were raised in French. In addition, people who were most familiar with a Scandinavian, South Asian, Greek or Spanish language accounted for about one per cent each of the population.

By 2006, the city's European atmosphere had been dramatically adjusted by new Asian immigrants fluent in everything from Mandarin to Korean, Hindi to Farsi.

Only 49 per cent of the growing city's 578,000 residents had English as a mother tongue, according to the 2006 census, which is the last year for which Statistics Canada census figures are available.

Meanwhile, 21 per cent reported that one of the various forms of Chinese was their first language. Another two per cent of Vancouverites said they had Punjabi as a mother tongue, while almost two per cent spoke Vietnamese at home, almost two per cent spoke Tagalog (Filipino) and roughly one per cent each were most familiar with Korean or Japanese.

Given the tens of thousands of immigrants from Asia who have moved into the city of Vancouver since 2006, the East Asian and South Asian percentages of the population only will have risen since the last census. One out of two Vancouverites is now foreign-born.

The latest data on the city's ethnic demographics may emerge from this year's major census. However, the full numerical picture may not come to light -despite the efforts of Statistics Canada's census workers.

A host of people and organizations have protested the federal Conservative government's announcement that filling out the 2011 long-form census will be "voluntary," rather than "mandatory," as in the past.

Specialists say that change will result in more unreliable data, since research shows there will inevitably be far fewer responses on the crucial longform census from immigrants, particularly those who struggle with English or French.

While the 2011 census data may not be as solid as in the past, Vancouver's schools are keeping good statistics reflecting the latest trend lines in immigration.

More than 4,000 new students have signed up for Vancouver schools in each of the past five years. Wong says those families come from 140 different countries.

More than half of the new kindergarten-to-Grade 12 students in Vancouver are from China.

More than one in 10 of the new students are from the Philippines, and another one in 10 are from South Korea, followed by those from Taiwan and the United States. About one in five are transferring from other parts of Canada.

How are Vancouver's eclectic European and Asian-rooted residents getting along in this city, which has grown by more than 100,000 since the 1970s?

"Canada has really opened up. I think the city is wonderful in its ethnic diversity. Young people in particular report that colour is just not an issue for them," says Wong.

Harmony, however, is not entirely supreme among Vancouverites of different ethnicities.

Wong and others acknowledge that, because of language barriers, elementary and highschool students often "seem more comfortable socializing with people like themselves" on playgrounds and after school.

Another challenge of high immigration into the city, acknowledges Wong, is the increasing lack of suitable jobs, particularly for the highly educated professionals crossing the Pacific in recent years from East Asia.

To get around the problem of under-employment for foreign-strained medical workers, engineers, botanists and other specialists, the City of Vancouver has initiated the Mentorship Pilot Project. It aims to link newcomers to the city's formal and informal employment networks.

The Mentorship Pilot Project should prove valuable, says Wong, because discrimination based on ethnicity can still be a problem in hiring in Vancouver.

So can language differences. Wong says would-be employers, whether Caucasian, East Asian or South American, tend to hire people with whom they can easily communicate through a common language.

To further assist immigrants gain access to social services, the City of Vancouver has set up help lines and websites available in five Asian languages. Indeed, the city's new 311 referral service aims, ultimately, to provide interpreters who can handle more than 100 languages.

City of Vancouver staff are "on the front lines" when it comes to dealing with a host of diversity issues, Wong says. Responding to the city's foreign newcomers requires a good deal of their energy.

If one had any doubt, consider that the non-English links on the City of Vancouver's official website now receive more hits than almost anything else.
 

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