The Hongcouver

Vancouver’s ethnic enclaves are growing fast, but is that really a problem?

Minorities in Vancouver are almost three times more likely to live in enclave neighbourhoods than they were in 1996, study finds

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 September, 2015, 5:56am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:49am

The experience in Vancouver upends a lot of traditional notions about immigration and ethnic enclaves that prevail in, say, Europe and the United States.

High levels of education and home ownership in many of the city’s enclave neighbourhoods belie these conventions. But deprived or not, there remains a fundamental debate: good thing or bad? A necessary stepping stone to integration into mainstream society or unnecessary (dangerous, even) repositories of cultural isolation? And what drives the formation of these enclaves?

It’s a delicate subject but it’s one to which UBC geography professor Dr Daniel Hiebert has devoted years of study. His latest peer-reviewed paper on the subject, released last month, argues that while such neighbourhoods are increasing in prevalence in Canada’s major metropolitan areas (witness the city of Richmond, the most-Chinese city outside Asia), they are very different “from the areas that are seen as deeply problematic” elsewhere, such as Europe.

In fact, Hiebert said in an interview on Tuesday, “some of the enclaves in Vancouver are in our most desirable areas…the city is full of them.”

That ethnic enclaves are becoming more prominent in metro Vancouver is pretty hard to dispute. For the purposes of his study, Hiebert defines an enclave as a census tract (neighbourhood) in which non-white visible minorities constitute at least 70 per cent of the population. These enclaves he further divides into mixed enclaves in which there is no dominant ethnocultural group; and those in which the largest group is at least twice the size of the second largest.

In 1996, the proportion of visible minority members in Vancouver who lived in either such enclave was 13 per cent. By 2011, that had risen to 36.8 per cent. In the same 15 years, the proportion of the city that was made up of visible minority members went from 31.1 per cent to 45.3 per cent. So not only did the proportion of minorities in the city increase by about half, their tendency to live in enclaves just about tripled. The numbers are about the same for Toronto - however Vancouverites are far less likely to live in mixed-minority enclaves, just 3 per cent of the total population doing so in 2011 compared to 7.4 per cent in Toronto.

Predictably, Chinese are the ethnic group most prevalent in Vancouver’s single-minority-dominated enclaves, making up 35.2 percent of the population of all such neighbourhoods. Yet it seems pretty unlikely that this represents a specific cultural tendency, and more reflective of the fact that Chinese are simply the biggest minority group in the city (18.1 per cent of the 2.28 million people in metro Vancouver in 2011). On the other hand, South Asians make up the biggest non-white group in Toronto, so it is they who are most prevalent in single-minority-dominated enclaves there, to roughly the same extent (35 per cent) as Chinese out west.

But do these enclaves necessarily represent monocultural spaces, an assumption that Hiebert’s paper says is “deeply embedded in European concerns over cultural isolation”?

It seems true that in Vancouver, at least, ethnic enclaves are the least culturally diverse parts of the city. If we break the city down into 3,400 “census dissemination areas” (neighbourhoods averaging about 700 residents each), the city’s whitest neighbourhoods actually have more different ethnicities represented than its least-white neighbourhoods. In neighbourhoods where the white population is at least 80 per cent, the average number of different ethnicities is 15.2. In enclaves dominated by a single non-white group, the average number of different ethnicities per neighbourhood is 10.4.

Despite that gap, Hiebert argues that even the low end of that scale still represents a “highly diverse social setting”.

Across Canada, “the vast majority of enclaves, even those where a particular group is dominant, are characterised by profound ethnocultural diversity”, his paper says, adding “the challenge, however, is that enclaves typically have few residents who are white.”

This presents a semantic challenge, and Hiebert advises against labelling neighbourhoods in a way that overlooks their true diversity. “When we label something Chinatown or Little Punjab, we only capture one facet of what’s there,” he said on Tuesday.

As to why enclaves form, Hiebert proposes three explanations without coming to a firm conclusion: economic reasons dictated by housing prices, a desire by minorities to live among those of the same ethnicity, and a desire by whites to avoid minorities by moving to more-white neighbourhoods (so-called “white flight”).

“If European Canadians say ‘well, Richmond is now too Chinese for me’, or ‘Surrey is too Indian for me’, then who is responsible for the creation of that enclave? It’s a complicated story,” said Hiebert.

What Hiebert does conclude is that “we should dispense with the widely held assumption that enclaves are antithetical to economic and cultural integration”.

Home ownership rates among visible minorities who live in Vancouver’s enclaves exceed the city-wide average (72.6 per cent in single-minority-dominated enclaves, versus 65.4 per cent for all residents city wide). And visible minority residents of enclaves are also more likely to hold a university degree than other residents across Vancouver (29.1 per cent in single-minority-dominated enclaves, versus 27.7 per cent for all residents city wide).

“We should resist the temptation to import European worries about enclaves or American concerns about an emerging ‘underclass’ into Canadian policy-making,” Hiebert’s paper says. “[Ethnocultural] enclaves in European cities and highly excluded neighbourhoods in US inner cities have characteristics that are fundamentally different from those found in most enclaves in Canada, particularly those in Toronto and Vancouver.”


The Hongcouver blog is devoted to the hybrid culture of its namesake cities: Hong Kong and Vancouver. All story ideas and comments are welcome. Connect with me by email [email protected] or on Twitter, @ianjamesyoung70. RSS feed here.