The dangers of self-ghettoization

"To me, multiculturalism means a single big bouquet with as many colours as possible, not a multiplicity of bouquets, each of only one colour,” Calgary journalist and commentator Israr Kasana says about our city's social fabric.

'What our city faces are self-imposed ethnic enclaves'

Calgary is home to some 1.2 million residents, about a third of them visible minorities. Among them is Israr Kasana, who worries too many new Canadians close themselves off in small clusters of familiar cultures. (Mark Burke)

Calgary has ghettos.

Not the ones we think of from television — places of broken windows and broken dreams, where gangs rule and police fear to tread.

No, we have different kinds of ghettos. Our city has had a long process of self-ghettoization, spatial marginality —  ghettoization of mind. And it's happened among the immigrant communities and visible minorities.

Communities of which, as a Pakistani Muslim, I am a part.

I call it Ghettoization 2.0.

This is not the ghettoization where people are willfully marginalized by broader society into limited geographic spaces on the basis of some perceived ethnic or economic difference but, rather, a subtle form of self-exclusion exercised through free movement.

It's a process of unofficially establishing neighbourhoods of self-proclaimed minorities in which the individuals who live there may perceive their neighborhood as beneficial — linguistically or religiously familiar and comforting. Something the rest of society can extol as virtuous: quaint expressions of welcome multiethnic diversity.

In this, both groups are wrong, though from highly understandable motives.

The problems with ghettos

If communities are "imagined," we must not allow ourselves to imagine ourselves into reductive geographies which limit the greater social good. Ghettos are antithetical to diversity.

Ghettoization or marginalization of any kind is bad for society. It creates exclusion, imbalance, envy, anger, ignorance and, more importantly, distrust.

All of these can erode the vital social trust bonds which build larger communities such as cities. Such as Calgary, a city made up of about 33 per cent visible minorities.

Such erosion also harms the cohesion of collective identity and the identity of individuals, as well. It frustrates our democratic ambitions. Those on the margins are relegated to inferior positions compared to those who hold power and prestige.

John Stuart Mill defined democracy as "government by discussion." Ghettoization halts that process. If there is an "unknowingness" or distrust between communities, there can be no discussion. As a result, inequality grows.

This is, in particular, a first-generation problem. But in understanding the potential problems, we can avoid friction in our collective social future.

Problems like these are as real in Calgary as they are in Stockholm or New York City.

A new immigrant

With my family, I landed in Calgary as a new immigrant in 2014.

I had already had the immigrant experience living in New York, with its divisions along racial lines. What I saw there troubled me profoundly. While I was living there, I wrote and spoke about what I saw. My observations became concerns.

Racial issues in the projects in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens are different than our troubles here. And we must not elide the concerns. They are different in origin, in implication and in vehemence. But here in Calgary, I have seen a different exclusionary problem arise.

And it concerns me.

Upon arrival in Calgary in 2014, my cousin offered me to take all of us to the northeast for dinner. He said it was an area which resembled Southall in London — that U.K. community with a concentration of South Asian people and many "Desi" restaurants.

Naan and samosas are a common offering at restaurants in northeast Calgary. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

We enjoyed the dinner and the cultural atmosphere, as well.

It was, in its own way, familiar.

But afterwards, my frequent visits to these areas of Calgary to attend seminars, personal meetings and even to buy groceries exposed another aspect of living within the communities.

A lot of people told me the story of the "othering" they feel while they interact with what could be called "mainstream" Calgary.

The 'Brown East'

What our city faces are self-imposed ethnic enclaves.

Not formal ones, drawn with a line, nor ones imposed on them, but ones which have arisen over time. If we visit some areas of the northeast, which I call "Brown East," we find huge clusters of South Asian people — my people — with their distinct lifestyle, culture and language.

Through my experience and observation I coined this term, Brown East, and I didn't like it. I could feel the severity of it. It was painful to me. I wished it was not so.

The population in this part of Calgary, comprising visible minorities from Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and other Asian and African countries has been growing.

Residents here interact with each other quite often, but rarely with people outside "the loop," as it were. They speak their own language. Many find problems in speaking and even understanding English. Quite a few maintain traditional dress and shop at community stores, which cater to their cultures.

It is convenient for people here to see people of their ethnic or cultural origin around them, to have the same feeling of back home, to go next door and buy familiar groceries of their liking, eat food at "Desi" restaurants, even send their kids to schools where the majority of kids are of their own background.

This gives many people a community feeling — a secure and comforting one.

Some people opting to live in the northeast think they can raise their kids in a familiar and convivial environment where their cultural identity would remain intact and they would not melt in the mainstream. That, in this way, they will not "lose" their children.

Another attraction is to have chit-chat with your neighbours, for both men and women, and revive their "back home" culture, which is all the more closely knit and interlinked.

This is something very nostalgic.

Why we decided not to live here

When we, as a family, arrived in Calgary, we faced the decision whether to move to the northeast. To be surrounded by a culture perhaps more familiar to us.

We had the conversation. Arguments were presented, pros and cons debated. But, after a lot of tense discussions, we decided not to move there.

The major reason was strategic.

We decided we need to be part of the mainstream if we wanted to reap the fruits of immigrating to a country like Canada. And we felt we could still follow our socio-cultural values while moving in the mainstream. So there was, for us, no big price tag involved in this decision.

We still go to the northeast to do our groceries, buy clothes, enjoy paan, pick up a copy of the free ethnic newspaper, have lunch or a dinner at our favourite restaurant, meet with friends, visit families and come back.

Yet, it is all too easy to praise such areas as the northeast as being culturally diverse. Of offering a beneficial sense of belonging. Of being unique and even quaint for the rest of the city to visit on weekends and eat some unusual food. Certainly to many who live there, its offerings are a comfort.

But within the benefit you can find the seeds of a serious problem.


What concerns me after hundreds of interactions with people in the northeast in the last three years is that I've found that integration or mainstreaming was not high on their priority list. I decided to probe it further and to interact more with people who have the same background as I do, and find the causes of their seclusion.

Much if it appears be fear and hardship.

I've spoken to one man whose family is struggling financially. His top priority is economic survival, not integration into some notion of mainstream culture. His wife says when she goes out into public, she gets stared at, which frightens her and makes her worry about her kids. So, she stays within her local community.

A Sikh family I spoke to was concerned about their teenage daughter, who was on drugs. The mother said, "We came here to educate our kids, but we have started losing them."

Fear can cause people to turn inward and self-isolate within their own communities.

In my experience, within my own community and others in the northeast, it means not watching Canadian mainstream television, news or entertainment.

Not even hockey.

Calgary Flames' Elias Lindholm, left, celebrates his second goal with teammate Matthew Tkachuk against the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Instead, they watch TV channels from their countries of their origin via IPTVs, and read locally published ethnic newspapers. Many people have no idea of the events on the national or local stage, some of them do not even know who their local MLA or MP is.

This creates a situation in which mainstream culture, mainstream political conversations, social activity and participatory democracy become irrelevant and thus people become uninterested. This lack of interest can lead to being overlooked. Being overlooked can lead to further isolation.

Being one of the visible minority groups myself and from a minority faith, I know this is a recipe for disaster for such groups. Integration for minorities is a must if they want to succeed in a new environment.

So what are people attached to?

Community of faith

Mosques, temples or gurdwaras — I find communities deeply attached to their respective places of worship. While this may anchor people who are newly arrived, it can also unintentionally lead to further segregation.

Our city's Muslim community, of which I am a part, faces a severe perception crisis and lags far behind on socio-political integration. Thus, many find it safe and convenient to stick within a limited sphere of interaction and stay away from mainstream culture.

Many in Calgary's Sikh community prefer to still live in clusters and are very committed to preserve their language and culture by living outside the mainstream.

Again, this can lead to isolation.

Keeping in view the background of 9/11 and its aftermath, the Muslims all over the world are going through a severe image crisis. The situation demands that they open up their doors to the rest of people, interact with them and try to remove the misconceptions instead of limiting and confining themselves to their isolated cocoons.

Worst hit are the first-generation immigrants, and among them the senior citizens and women.

Isolated within extended families and community, these individuals are often our least-integrated immigrants, who face physical and mental health issues. The second or third generation immigrants fare comparatively better, but their pace of integration, too, leaves much to be desired.

But an important factor to remember in this: these trends are not confined only to these particular neighbourhoods.

Rather, there is something I call "the ghettoization of the mind."

Mental ghettos

I find among the majority of the immigrants — no matter where they live in Calgary or where they came from — a desire to live within their own ethnic or cultural community, their own language, food, clothing, religion, sport, music, dance.

Again, these are seen as positives in our multicultural discourse, as cultural benefits to the city as a whole, expanding diversity.

Some think it's a boon, not a bane. That the way forward for minorities to stay relevant and ensure continuance and save themselves from xenophobia expressed by some mainstream groups or individuals are these safe-haven enclaves.

But at what cost to the individual?

Interestingly, some political leaders in these areas have benefited from the concentration of such ethnic groups. They have been winning seats of provincial or federal legislatures which otherwise would be very tough for them, had ethnic populations been scattered. This has caused displeasure and dissatisfaction among many other ethnic groups. They think their representation doesn't reflect their proportion of population.

Real political process demands real representation.

We always hear the mantra of multiculturalism and that it's the beauty of Calgary's political culture. But to me, multiculturalism means a single, big bouquet with as many colours as possible, not a multiplicity of bouquets (pockets), each of only one colour.

If this trend goes on, we can add more bouquets (pockets) as we want, but it will certainly not add beauty to the one bouquet (Calgary) for which we are so concerned. This is contrary to the spirit of democracy and raison d'être of elections.

Some people can say that this system gives minorities a much-needed voice in the system. My answer is that there should be no minorities in our social fabric in the first place. The system should take care of us all regardless of our colour, creed or ethnicity. Equality should be the hallmark of our system.

So, what to do?

The slow fix

As I said earlier, generational change and time will likely help.

With the passage of time and constant education, the next generations may move out from these areas to reap the benefits of the wider community. They might be the ones who would think strategically.

As the various ethnic communities who, in the early 20th century immigrated to New York and changed and grew, their children dispersed through the city. Little Italy is no longer a hotbed of ethnic Italians.

There are no quick or easy fixes to this dilemma but, like all other societal problems, the government and civil society should jointly excogitate a strategy to confront this issue. Civil society can help raise awareness and government can help fund different agencies or institutions to look into this situation and suggest changes.

But more importantly, we should talk.

We should talk to our neighbours, and have them over. We should offer to share who we are and how we see the world: our food, our families, our faith. We must reach out, even when we suspect distrust.

We, as Calgarians, must integrate with each other.

We immigrants also need to ask ourselves why we left our homelands and families, what we were seeking here, and in what ways we have tried to integrate. And if we have failed to do so, then why?- Israr Kasana

All the stakeholders need to go through soul searching here and ask questions. The governments (federal, provincial, municipal) need to ask themselves the basic rationale of inviting immigrants and then letting them not be part of the mainstream. The immigration policy of the country has to find answers to this question.

We immigrants also need to ask ourselves why we left our homelands and families, what we were seeking here, and in what ways we have tried to integrate. And if we have failed to do so, then why?

It's been a tough decision for me to sacrifice all the benefits of living within my ethnic community in the northeast and forgo the advantages people have there.

But I made a calculated decision based on strategic interests. The very rationale of my migrating to a city like Calgary was at stake. I couldn't see my family being marginalized (even unwittingly) and deprived of the advantages of being in the mainstream. And then, it was not in the interest of the society I was living in that I think parochially.

I always believe "to win it, you have to be in it."

This is a win-win situation for all.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at

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Israr Kasana


Israr Kasana is a well known journalist in his native country Pakistan, where he was the senior anchor and executive editor of the Pakistan Television Corporation. In Canada, Kasana has hosted programming on OMNI TV. Kasana now lives in Calgary.