Hamilton's immigrant population is constantly growing and changing, nowhere moreso than in the east end neighbourhood of Riverdale.
According to a report last year from the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton, the area boasts the largest proportion of recent immigrants to the city. In the report, which dubbed the neighbourhood "Hamilton's arrival city," almost half of the neighbourhood's residents identify themselves as a visible minority — 43 per cent — compared to only 16 per cent for the rest of the city.
It's a diverse community that's largely made up of young families who have recently arrived in Canada: 28 per cent of the Riverdale population is under the age of 20, compared to 25 per cent for the city. While only 3 per cent of residents in the city at large have immigrated to Canada between 2001 and 2006, 16 per cent of the Riverdale population arrived during that time.
It makes for a vibrant community that brings the richness of many different cultures to one area, but it also creates a unique set of challenges that Riverdale residents face moreso than any other community in the city. According to the SPRC, 35 per cent of Riverdale’s population is living in poverty, nearly double the18 per cent in the rest of the city.
On Tuesday, the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion hosted a conversation cafe — a series of events to encourage dialogue about community concerns — in Riverdale. Saira Farooq, a mother who lives in the area, spoke on behalf of many in the area’s South Asian community to share the issues that affect them the most.
"The most important is that it’s too hard to find a job," Farooq told CBC Hamilton. "We have doctors and engineers coming from overseas who are very talented and qualified and most of them are driving cabs."
Farooq herself has faced difficulty finding work in the city, despite having work experience as a software engineer for the City of Hamilton. When she first immigrated from Pakistan in 2010, she worked on a short-term contract for the city, but hasn’t been able to find work since.
Her Canadian-born husband supports her and their three-year-old son with his car repair shop, but many other residents aren’t so lucky, she said.
"They’re living hand-to-mouth."
City council's role
These promblems aren’t news to Coun. Chad Collins, the city representative for Ward 5, which includes Riverdale.
"Underemployment is a common issue," he said. "In some cases you have doctors and educators who are underemployed, but unfortunately that’s a federal issue."
However, there are other issues the community faces where the city can help, Collins said. Farooq said many families are concerned about safety and crime in the area, about poor housing conditions and inadequate programming for the many children that call Riverdale home. Collins said he’s been working on solutions to all of these problems.
"One of the issues in Riverdale is property standards because many don’t realize we have by-laws in place that protect them," he said, explaining the language barrier prevents proper communication between the city and community.
"I’m going to have information pamphlets translated into the top 10 languages in Riverdale. Not only will people maybe feel more comfortable reaching out if they have information in their own language, but it will let them know we have translators."
He also pointed to a survey of local children to find out what they’d like to see in a new recreation centre.
"Traditionally we might build a hockey rink but cricket was one of the most popular responses and they don’t have a cricket field, so we’ve been working to get that."
The big picture
But cricket fields and pamphlets in Punjabi only go so far, when the real issues need intervention and support from the federal and provincial level, according to Ward 4 Coun. Sam Merulla.
He’s often talked about the downloading of costs from provincial to municipal government by mandated programs without increasing funding. He said the municipal government can only do so much to help newcomers to Hamilton and it’s up to the province to solve the larger issues at hand. Unfortunately, he said, many residents point the finger solely at the city.
'We are all trying to look for ways to make it better.' —Saira Farooq, Riverdale resident
"I think the average person in Hamilton doesn’t recognize that 95 cents out of every dollar paid in taxes goes to the federal and provincial government," he said. "They’re so focused on city hall that they’re missing the big picture."
But for community members like Farooq, the smaller issues at hand are just as important.
"The [community] wanted me to tell the councillors that the community should be more peaceful and respect each other’s differences," she said.
"There were lots of suggestions. We are all trying to look for ways to make it better."