Corp Comm Connects

Are we in York welcoming to newcomers?

Richmond Hill workshop highlights diversity woes, positive pledges
May 22, 2015
By Kim Zarzour

If you are in Richmond Hill right now, take a look around.

What you see is probably not what the rest of the country sees: a wide range of cultures, people of many faiths and multiple ethnic backgrounds.

Southern York Region - Richmond Hill and Markham in particular - are viewed as leaders in community diversity, attracting experts worldwide to see how community leaders make it work.

There are many things that the region does right - but also ways to improve, as participants in a public forum found out this week in Richmond Hill.

About two dozen people gathered at town hall Tuesday for Let’s Talk Inclusion, an initiative put together by the Region of York and the Community Partnership Council.

This was the final week of nine inclusion discussions held throughout the region seeking residents’ views on immigration and cultural diversity in one of the fastest growing, most diverse regions in the country.

About 250,000 newcomers arrive in Canada each year and the majority settles in the GTA, according to Tana Turner, a diversity consultant and session facilitator.

York Region is a top destination point, she said.

“People used to move to Toronto and then move on to the 905 area, but over the past few years, they have come directly here.”

This region looks very different from rest of the province, where 29 per cent of the population was born outside the country. In York, that figure is much higher - 45 per cent - and the percentage is expected to increase to 55 per cent by 2031, Turner said.

Regionwide, 28 per cent of immigrants hail from China, 9 per cent from Iran, 6 per cent from India and 6 per cent from the Philippines.

In Richmond Hill, 26 per cent are from China, 21 per cent from Iran, and 7 per cent from South Korea, she said.

The influx will continue, as newcomers fill the spaces left by an aging population and declining birth rate.

These rapidly changing demographics bring changing needs for housing, transit, services and economy, Turner added, “and everyone has a role to play, from government to business, services and residents”.

“It’s not just ‘nice to do’,” she said.

Studies show that encouraging diversity leads to stronger organizations and those with more diverse boards are less likely to fail. Decisions may take longer, but they are better decisions, and there’s more employee satisfaction and less turnover in diverse organizations, she told the gathering.

As well, diversity and immigration stimulates economic growth and prepares young people to thrive in a multicultural and global economy.

But there’s work to be done to ensure the changing face of York Region occurs smoothly, which is what the regional initiative hopes to tackle.

Participants were divided into small working groups and asked what their community is doing right and what could be done better to create a welcoming environment.

Because Richmond Hill is already a richly diverse municipality, and “everyone looks different”, newcomers understand that it’s okay to look different too, said Marj Andre, speaking for her discussion group.

Public schools do a great job of breaking down cultural barriers, politicians reach out to cultural groups, and diversity among government leaders shows newcomers that it is possible to be a leader in the community, she said.

Mohammed Rashwan said newcomers from Iran and other countries have created jobs in Richmond Hill by establishing new businesses. These new businesses also reach out to make immigrants feel welcome, he said.

“It’s really amazing how so many businesses and services cater to our market needs.

“Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts always has something new and interesting and you can learn a lot about the community that way,” Rashwan said.

Lusa Harris, a student at Richmond Hill High School, said the large number of immigrants means great choice in restaurants.

“You can have Mexican at the beginning of the day and end it with sushi if you want,” she said “I love going to other people’s houses to eat different food and see how they would prepare it.”

Her working group at Tuesday’s workshop also noted that Richmond Hill has many public spaces for connecting with others, but some newcomers struggle to have their foreign credentials recognized in the Canadian workplace.

Employment issues were a common concern raised by participants.

Bruce Macgregor, York Region’s chief administrative officer, took part in the event and said that his working group believes the region could do a better job matching skills to employment opportunities.

Growing diversity also requires the region create more opportunities to cohabitate.

“There’s a lot of single-family building, but that’s not necessarily the way it works, especially at the beginning. It’s certainly not how my parents started out back in the 1940s,” he said.

Newcomers would also fare better in the region if better public transit were available, and if the public library provided more information suited to their needs, he said.

While schools, police, faith groups, politicians, mentors and volunteers are all doing a good job of reaching out to immigrants, Richmond Hill resident Megan Thomas said her group raised concerns that not all newcomers know where to go for help.

There’s also a knowledge gap when it comes to knowing what laws apply and how they apply in Canada, she said.

Thomas said other challenges occur when immigrants live in an “insular” way, clinging tightly to their heritage groups.

Tuesday’s event wrapped up the first phase of the Let’s Talk Inclusion series. Future discussions will look at other areas of diversity such as gender, age, abilities and sexual orientation.

The region will publish a report online by mid-June, Turner said, which will help shape the York Region Diversity and Inclusion Charter to be developed in 2016.

The charter will act as a visionary document that local organizations can sign on to and determine how to implement.

A workbook is available online at where residents can hold their own discussions in the community and share their vision for a more inclusive York Region.


Want to add your voice to the discussion? Social Services Network hosts a Let’s Talk Diversity Wednesday, May 27, from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m, at Markham Community Hub, 8 Shadlock St., Unit # 5 A in Markham. Light snacks will be provided, as well as translation in Tamil and Punjabi. RSVP Naz Arain: or 905-554-9033 ext. 224.