How 3 waves of Asian immigration shaped Ottawa


Ajit Singh Sandhu will never forget the day he saw one of Pakistan’s most revered folk singers perform in Ottawa.

“You never thought it would happen as an event here… It just reflects what the community looks like now, how big we are,” said Sandhu, who waited 13 years for a show like this. size hits the nation’s capital.

In 2018, the New Delhi immigrant joined thousands of fans to pack the halls of the Centrepointe Theater to watch Rahat Fateh Ali Khan sing hit songs from Bollywood movies.

For Sandhu, this moment was a milestone in the growth of Ottawa’s South Asian community.

“Big names have started to come to our city, [before] they would only go to Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, ”said Sandhu.

When Sandhu first moved to Ottawa in 2005, there were 26,640 South Asians in the city, but by 2016 that number had risen to 40,725, according to Statistics Canada.

Like many recent Asian immigrants, Sandhu was drawn to Ottawa’s burgeoning tech industry, commonly referred to as “Silicon Valley North”. This is the latest in a series of waves of immigration from Asia that have shaped the city since the first Chinese and Japanese railway workers arrived in Canada over 160 years ago.

A closer look at the 2016 census reveals that almost 20% of Ottawa residents identify as being of Asian descent.

Robert Vineberg, a longtime federal government immigration employee, knows the benefits of diversity in Ottawa. (Robert Vineberg)

“Ottawa’s Asian population has grown from a very small community to now a significant portion of the city’s population and a major driving force in the economy,” said Robert Vineberg, Chairman of the Museum’s Board of Trustees. Canadian Immigration. .

How Asian Immigration Started

According to Vineberg, the first great wave of Asian immigrants that helped Ottawa become the city it is now dates back more than a century to the more than 40,000 Chinese and Japanese railway workers who literally reshaped the Canadian landscape.

While many of them originally settled and worked on the West Coast, some of them eventually had – or were forced to – relocate elsewhere in the country.

“These people helped lay the foundation for what Canada is today,” said Vineberg.

Melisa Kamibayashi remembers the creative efforts of her family and other Japanese Canadians to celebrate their small community. (Melisa Kamibayashi)

Melisa Kamibayashi knows their sacrifices firsthand.

As president of the Ottawa Japanese Community Association, Kamibayashi is deeply involved in cultural celebrations. But that was a different story for his ancestors.

Both of her grandparents immigrated to the west coast of Japan in the early 1900s. After decades of hard work, they were forcibly moved to internment camps in northern British Columbia and stripped of their families. goods.

Once released, his family members were finally released in Ontario and put down roots in Ottawa.

Kamibayashi said that growing up, she and other Japanese-Canadian families felt “disconnected from their Japanese roots” because the internment camps tried to “erase” their sense of cultural belonging.

Still, she said her father Fred Kamibayashi did what he could to preserve their Japanese heritage.

“We had Christmas parties, where there is no Japanese culture involved at all. It was just people of Japanese descent who could get together,” Kamibayashi said. “[He] created much of the Japanese community. “

Since 1996, the Japanese population in Ottawa has grown from 1,045 to over 3,105.

In 1991, the community opened its first cultural center in the city, which serves as a center of learning for everything Japanese – from craft sales to cultural events such as Mochitsuki, the annual rice pounding festival.

Changing the attitude of the general public

Canada’s attitude towards immigration, especially those of “visible minority” groups, has changed in the wake of major international conflicts, according to Vineberg.

“These soldiers, airmen and sailors [who] came back to Canada had a huge increase in self-confidence and a desire to build a better country, ”Vineberg said.

This ultimately led to the Immigration Act of 1976, which underscored Canada’s desire to eliminate discriminatory practices surrounding immigration. Vineberg considers this to be a pivotal moment in Canadian history.

“[There was a] a definite commitment to a multicultural Canada and this desire to be a country open to the world, ”he declared.

It was this change in public policy that paved the way for 60,000 Vietnamese refugees to build a new life in Canada.

A safe haven for immigrants and refugees

All of Minhtri Truong’s family fled by boat and lived in a refugee camp after the Vietnam War.

After first settling in Montreal, Truong moved to Ottawa to study at Carleton University in 1990.

MinhTri Troung and her family came to Canada as refugees after the end of the Vietnam War. (MinhTri Truong)

He said the Vietnamese community was still thriving at the time. The City of Ottawa had privately sponsored some 2,000 Vietnamese refugees, and another 1,600 had come through the federal government’s resettlement program.

In 2016, the number of Ottawa residents who identify as Vietnamese exceeded 8,700.

Although his father was once seen as a “political threat” in Vietnam, Truong says he has remained committed to promoting Vietnamese culture – from hosting a local community radio show for 20 years to organizing. of a Vietnamese-Canada conference on Parliament Hill in 2019.

“I was a young volunteer learning and talking about what happened… I mentor and want to share our story,” Truong said.

Technological boom and current immigration

In Ottawa, the tech boom that began at the turn of the millennium saw some 20,000 Asian immigrants settling in the city between 1996 and 2001, the majority of whom came from China and South Asia.

This technological infrastructure is what attracted Sandhu.

Over the years, Sandhu says the city has become a more tolerant place. When he arrived, he said many of his conversations with strangers often centered around his turban.

“I still had to explain to Sikh people and as a community who we are, what our beliefs are. Now I feel like people are more aware,” Sandhu said.

Ajit Singh Sandhu moved to Ottawa after the city’s tech boom ended. (Luther Caverly)

Since then, Ottawa’s South Asian community has grown so much that Sandhu says he can find any spice and seasoning in big box stores.

“You don’t even have to go to the Indian grocery store,” he said.

The father of three says he is dedicated to giving back to Ottawa, his home. That’s why he created Langar for Hunger in 2016, which organizes food and blood drives.

“Whenever you are a very visible minority, you are the ambassador of the community because people will judge your actions by anyone like you,” Sandhu said.

Although the pandemic has put many immigration applications on hold, the legacy of Canada’s Immigration Act is expected to continue, according to Vineberg.

In 2015, the federal government doubled its immigration strategy by introducing an express path system designed to streamline applications from skilled immigrants.

Vineberg believes this will continue to attract people from Asia.

“Diversity is a real strength. Immigration attracts investment, cultural and artistic initiatives – it values [life]. “

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