By Aram Collier

When we imagine our multicultural Canadian society, we think of the iconic urban neighbourhoods and ethnic enclaves that play crucial roles as a launching pad for newcomer communities. Places like Montreal’s Park Extension neighbourhood (“Park Ex” for short), which has been home to many immigrant communities as they navigate their new Canadian life.

In the documentary Return to Park Ex we get an intimate view of this diverse, vibrant, and complex neighbourhood.  Language teacher and therapist Jennifer Davos grew up and still lives there. “In Park Extension, shared hardship is the common ground. Most people here, whether they have just arrived or have been here for decades, have all come from somewhere else. Many of the cultures here are collectivist and are known for keeping their eye on you. It may have its drawbacks if you want to remain anonymous, but it is the reason you are never truly alone here.”

SCENE FROM THE FILM: Jennifer Davos wants her children to embrace Greek heritage.
Treated as an outsider

Despite Park EX’s diversity, Davos had a difficult youth and was treated as an outsider because of her mixed Greek and English/French/Irish heritage, “As a child, I did not have the full capacity to take on the burden of adults' perception of cultural singularity. For me, I was as much Greek as I was English and French; and then as much a Hindi speaker, as well as a Bengali one.” Ultimately, she found her place in the neighbourhood’s South Asian community and married a Sikh man.

“I remember once, at the end of the dinner, one of my relatives had asked for my business card, which read Manpreet Davos (Manpreet is short for Sumanpreet, my Punjabi name). And a relative standing nearby asked almost disgustedly, like it was just too bizarre to comprehend, "Who are you really? Maria? Jennifer? Manpreet?! How many names do you have?" And it was really at that moment that I understood fully, at age thirty-something, that it was beautiful to have so many names and selves; to have... an ability to weave one's identity through a multicultural cloth and be part of not one but many communities. How rich I felt at that moment... Park Ex for me allows me to be every one of my cultural selves.”

Racism still exists in multi-cultural communities

However, as Davos raises her own mixed-race children she cautions against painting too idyllic of a picture of multiculturalism, in Park Ex or elsewhere.

“I want my children to know about each one of their cultures, the good and the bad. Conflict and rejection are a part of developing not only a sense of self but also navigating the multicultural world we live in. Racism is in full force no matter how diverse and tolerant our neighbourhood can be.”

Informed by her upbringing in the neighbourhood, Davos runs a language and acculturation centre to help people navigate these multicultural minefields. “Learning a new language can come all wrapped up in depression and anxiety, stress and discomfort. My role is to be a sort of guide in helping clients navigate their new environment, identity, and language learning.” 

While Davos works to fold people into the community, some worry the neighbourhood’s existence is imperiled from outside development and changing demographics. However, Davos is more circumspect about the neighbourhood’s future, “It is like someone who gets plastic surgery, gains/loses weight, changes hairstyles and fashion according to the newest fad: the heart and personality inside stay the same. Park Extension will undergo similar transformations and ultimately continue to be Park Extension, land of communities and transitions.”

Watch Return to Park Ex on CBC Docs POV.