The Canadian dream
Season 2, Episode 4
In a multicultural hub like the Greater Toronto Area, what impact do immigrant entrepreneurs and retailers have on the city? Urban and Regional Planning professor Zhixi Zhuang says the benefits go beyond economic ones and extend into establishing a sense of belonging and ownership for many newcomers and communities. In this episode, host Amanda Cupido chats with Dr. Zhuang and Mohamad Fakih, President and CEO of Paramount Fine Foods about the positive impacts of immigrant businesses.
Amanda: This is The Forefront, a podcast that explores ideas for cities. I’m Amanda Cupido.
So here’s the problem: Canada is fortunate enough to be one of the most diverse countries in the world, but so many newcomers are underemployed. Talented people come here with big ambitions to take advantage of all the opportunities our country has to offer, but end up facing roadblocks when they apply for jobs.
Mohamad: They used to say, “No, you just landed here and you don't have Canadian experience.” And I heard so many “No’s.”
Amanda: This is Mohamad Fakih. He's from Lebanon.
Mohamad: I've applied to so many jobs and with the heavy accent that I would love always to keep forever, because it's a conversation opener. I love my accent. And I don't want to lose it ever.
Amanda: Mohamad came to Canada in 1999 with $1200 in his pocket. Now, he's the CEO of Paramount Fine Foods, a popular Lebanese restaurant with more than 2000 employees worldwide —but it wasn’t easy.
Mohamad: Until I opened Paramount, I worked in a jewelry store in the Eaton center free for a year. And while I was working for free, I had to work at night in Coffee Time to clean the floor and do a night shift pouring coffee, despite that I had a degree in geology and gemology because I didn't have Canadian experience.
Amanda: After working this way for a year, Mohamad finally found a paying job at the watch brand, La Swiss. There, he became friendly with a customer after he convinced her the watch she was going to buy was too expensive.
Mohamad: She came back and offered me a job and I said “no, I don't want another job. I want to be your partner.” And she laughed and I said “I really want to be your partner as I'm living here, I want to own something, I want to build something.”
Amanda: The woman agreed to give Mohamad equity in her company. Eventually, he would buy her out, and use the money to open fourteen Swatch kiosks in malls across the country. It was during this stage of his career that Mohamad had a conversation at a restaurant that would change his life.
Mohamad: So fast forward one day I walked in to buy kilo baklava, I had a conversation with the owner, I found out that his businesses are struggling, and then that's when I jumped in, and started Paramount Fine Foods, and took it over from him. I didn't know anything about the food industry. And today, Paramount Fine Food is over 80 locations worldwide. I think, you know, one of the things that I know that I have, and a lot of immigrants that come to this country has - we're hungry. And when you're hungry, hungry for success, not hungry for food. You want to build a better life, you didn't come across the ocean and travel 14-15 hours to just get a job and forever be employed, you want to do more. And you want to bring a better impact, bigger impact on your life, and on everybody else. That's the immigrant story. And that's why people leave their countries to come to build a better life for themselves and their family.
Amanda: Mohamad's story is pretty incredible. But hundreds of thousands of immigrants come to Canada each year and not all of them are able to navigate the system the same way.
Zhixi: Their voices need to be heard and our cities can do much better jobs to support them and to work with them and co-create more inclusive spaces.
Amanda: This is Dr. Zhixi Zhuang. She’s an associate professor in the School of Urban and Regional Planning.
Zhixi: They are also significant city-builders, making their contributions not only to the city's economy, but also contributing to building inclusive communities.
Amanda: Zhixi has done extensive research in this area.
Zhixi: I also look into the ways that immigrants and racialized communities have negotiated their space and rights to the city, how they create new meanings and new places, to the existing communities. And it's fascinating learning from all these diverse communities.
Amanda: Back in 2018, she embarked on a study and noticed that, unlike earlier immigrant communities that settled in Toronto’s inner city, the immigrants of today were forming communities in the suburban enclaves of the Greater Toronto Area. She wanted to find out what made these “ethnic retail clusters” tick.
Zhixi: That actually draws my attention to the suburban, outlying areas where immigrants tend to concentrate and develop their own social infrastructure and also build their own community. And there are lots of those kinds of—people call it suburban ethnic enclaves, or ethnoburbs, or immigrant suburbs—and to describe that kind of suburban concentration phenomenon.
Amanda: Zhixi ended up studying over 100 of these clusters, which included about 4000 small businesses, most of which were owned and operated by immigrants, as well as some larger businesses like Mohamad’s. After conducting hundreds of interviews and focus groups, she found that the most important function of these businesses went far beyond their economic function.
Zhixi: I do consider these immigrant business clusters as a unique form of public space. They are not just the private entrepreneurial entity, they are part of the city and that's where people tend to gather and have their social interactions and in many cases, those clusters are used as community hubs, or for social interactions, for public events, for community organizing, for example. So it's really like beyond that economic functions.
Amanda: On top of that, she was struck by how many of the areas were overwhelmingly diverse.
Zhixi: There are private schools catering to the needs of the co-ethnic community. There are multiple places of worship. Like for example, in one case it's a mix of the Hindu temple and the Sikh Gurdwara, the Islamic service center and huge banquet halls, serving the general public and a newly built hotel for the purpose of family gathering or traveling or visiting their friends and relatives in the area. And it's really interesting, just like not just about a few grocery stores and shopping places, but a lot of services catering to the needs of the community. For example, accounting services and lawyers and travel agencies and extra-curricular activities for kids and spaces for seniors to practice yoga, or basically just play board games in the afternoon, or use the community kitchen.
Amanda: These immigrant businesses became not only sources of culture-specific goods, but places where newcomers could find community. This inspired her to think about what city planners could learn from these spaces.
Zhixi: It's so important because a lot of immigrants and newcomers, they don't really necessarily have that social connection with the host society. They need to rely on their own cultural and ethnic resources and networks to support their integration here in Canada. Of course, some people will argue that they tend to stay in their comfort zone. So that is a question: how can planners and designers create the shared spaces for immigrant communities, for communities at large to actually share their cultures and share the space, and better understand different perspectives and different cultures and different heritages?
Amanda: She says it's important for people to realize these ethinic clusters are not meant to be exclusive.
Zhixi: And we want to really invite people to come out of their comfort zone, and develop that appreciation of different cultures and talking about diversity and multiculturalism. It's not just about how diverse the population is, it's more about to what extent we understand each other, we appreciate each other.
Amanda: This is an idea that Mohamad can definitely relate to. Helping people appreciate his culture was top of mind when he started Paramount Fine Foods.
Mohamad: I wanted to change the way the world looked at the Middle Eastern culture in general and Muslim people and Halal in a different way. And the best way to do it is through food. And I found that Muslims are getting on the defensive because of what the media saying and that's going to detach them from the rest of the world and integrating within Canada. And the same, the Canadians, from all their backgrounds definitely are looking at the media, seeing the media and the most open of them, in the back of their head something about these Muslims and at least a question mark. So I thought food will bring us together. And that's why I love the idea. Even if I didn't know how to fry an egg when I bought the restaurant.
We are all ambassadors in life. Either you are an accountant, an employee, doesn't matter what you do - if you're a server, you're a dishwasher - if you're a business owner, we all represent what we do. We all represent the profession we do, a culture where we came from. We do!
So the culture where I came from, I wanted to represent the kindness and the generosity that I learned from my parents, and that is demanded in the Muslim religion, to be generous to others - not when you're rich - no, always. Always to be a giving person, always. And if you have a loaf of bread, to share it with your neighbor. This is a real experience that I had during the war in Lebanon that I lived through, when we had bread and the neighbor didn't, we'll share with them. And my family will understand that we have only four loaves, because our neighbor took four. But that's right, because we couldn't and shouldn't eat alone. And I wanted to bring that mentality and expand it across our country, the country that I love Canada, and I did.
Amanda: Like many immigrant business owners, Mohamad wants to represent his community and help those unfamiliar with Lebanese culture to appreciate it. But how can cities support smaller immigrant-owned businesses to do the same?
Zhixi: The way that we engage newcomers or racialized communities or immigrant communities might not be the same as the conventional approaches. And who wants to go to, if you ask newcomers, do they want to go to attend a public consultation meeting, while in front of 500 people and a newcomer whose first language is not English, has to speak for themselves? No one wants to do that, guaranteed. So can we find other ways that are more creative, more engaging, and more meaningful to actually consult and engage all these diverse communities? Do you need to consider the barriers, lots of barriers people face, such as language, or their age, their gender, or even just their perception of this engagement process or the feelings of powerlessness? So then, if we properly and meaningfully engage diverse community members, then the next step is to really invite them to co-create the solutions.
Amanda: Another element to all of this is building cities in a way that truly sees these ethnic retail clusters as an asset to the community.
Zhixi: So simple way to do it as a starting point is to for example, conduct asset mapping of the existing cultural facilities or the social infrastructure that immigrant communities have already developed and think about, consider them as the asset of the existing neighborhood and reinvest in the established social infrastructure because people use it as community hubs and use it as meaningful community spaces. As municipalities we should consider how to actually support and further develop those spaces and in order to create more shared spaces and infrastructure and also facilitate the intercultural bonding or understanding or bridging. So I am just like trying to provide that vision for the future. But I understand, it's not that easy. It takes time and takes a lot of intentional and meaningful engagement activities to come to that common ground.
Amanda: So ya, we have a bit of a ways to go—but that doesn’t mean we can’t work together to get there.
Mohamad: The American Dream is about the white fence, the white picket fence separating people from others. The Canadian dream is the dream that we should be speaking more often of. It's a dream that we should be proud of, a dream that welcomes everyone, where we stand together in good times and bad times. And that's definitely a dream that brought me here. And that's the Canadian dream I'll be forever proud of. And that's the Canadian dream that I want my kids to live through, and to promote to the rest of the world.
Amanda: In 2018, Mohamad was presented with an honourary doctorate from the university for his contributions to his community and Canada at large. He says standing on that stage was a powerful moment.
Mohamad: It's a strong message to everyone that does not believe that the immigrants are a great contributor to this country. There is nothing in life better than giving someone an opportunity to prosper, they will forever be loyal to those - to the country that does give them that opportunity. And to the people that welcome them and embrace them with that smile and acceptance. And that's why I always say, I love Canada. I love its people, and will forever defend this country, and help it help every single Canadian that reach out. And if they don't, I'll reach out to them because it made me who I am today. I'm a Canadian Muslim, I'm proud. I am who I am because of what I learned in Lebanon, what I studied in Italy, and the experience I have in Canada, and to everyone out there that immigrated here. Please don't change your name to fit in. Please don't try to forget your past and where you came from. Canada will celebrate you the way you are. Regardless if your name is easy to spell or not like mine. So please be yourself. Don't forget where you came from. We are in the best country on Earth, and we need to protect it.
Amanda: Before we go, here’s a final note from Zhixi about why our university is the ideal place to conduct her research.
Zhixi: The goal of creating equitable and inclusive societies and cities, basically these are the principles for all of our work, and our research and our teaching, so it's very well embedded in our professional practice. So I really appreciate that kind of like, a very inclusive environment, because we understand how important to employ the EDI principles. And that actually, is the foundation for any work we have been doing. I feel very fortunate to work with colleagues who are collegiate, and supportive and caring and always think about what is the best, equitable and inclusive approaches in engaging students, in engaging our research work, and also in working with community partners in a very respectful way. And so we are working as a community, and it does take a community to achieve the goal of equity, diversity and inclusion. So it's not like we can do this alone.
Amanda: This podcast was created for alumni and friends by University Advancement, in partnership with City Building Toronto Metropolitan University. Special thanks to our guests on today’s episode, Mohamad Fakhi and Dr. Zhixi Zhuang. This podcast was created by me, Amanda Cupido, and Emily Morantz. Both of us are proud graduates of the university!
To learn more about Zhixi's research, and hear more episodes of this podcast and others, visit ryerson.ca/alumni/podcasts.