“It accepts and celebrates everyone”: a lesson in diversity and tolerance from one of the happiest places in the world

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Sejal Kapadia Pocha
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When Sejal Kapadia moved from London to Toronto, a city the world knows little about, she couldn't help but wonder if she had made the right decision. But one month in, she's discovered why America's neighbour ranks so highly when it comes to happiness. 

The other day, as I was crossing the street I noticed a man wearing a T-shirt that read “I hate rubber boots,” all the while wearing a pair of bottle-green Wellingtons.

The one thing I’ve quickly learnt about Canadians is that making a person smile is the norm. Whether it’s a friendly greeting from the person behind a coffee shop counter or a medley of blue whales painted on the side of a warehouse, there’s something very charming and inclusive about this northern territory.

That means a lot to a girl who’s used to instinctively jolting around hoards of tourists and avoiding making eye contact with anyone holding a map on the streets of London. 

I’ve lived in the UK capital my whole life until last month when my Canadian husband and I decided to give his home city, Toronto, a go. 

“Ohh Toronto. Isn't that where Drake's from?” was the general response from friends and peers. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ethnically diverse cabinet of 15 men and 15 women has also cemented Canada’s reputation as a progressive country.

However, few people know Canada as anything more than the land of snow and maple syrup.

But last week The Economist named Toronto the fourth most liveable city in the world, alongside Vancouver (third) and Calgary (fifth). That’s three Canadian cities in the top five. I had no idea I had moved to a socio-economic wonderland. 

And there's plenty more studies to back The Economist’s views.

Earlier this year, Canada was named the sixth happiest country in the world, behind Scandinavian heavyweights Denmark, Norway and Finland (it was the highest ranked country outside of Northern Europe). Toronto was recently ranked the best city to live for young people and in June, the country beat 131 countries to earn second place on the 2016 Social Progress Index, gaining particular praise for its tolerance of immigration, inclusion and gender equity. In basic terms, Canada has a way of making everyone feel at home. 

“Toronto is the least judgemental place I have ever been. It accepts and tries to celebrate everyone,” says a friend of my husband’s.

She's right, and I think I’m noticing it even more with Brexit and the unexpected wave of narrow British nationalism fresh in my mind. 

In Toronto especially, I've seen a woman in traditional Punjabi dress who can barely speak English and a well-spoken white man in a suit be treated with the exact same respect and kindness in a restaurant. As another friend put it: “We’re not about assimilation, we’re about accepting what you bring to the city.”

While most China towns in the world are generally gimmicky areas frequented by tourists, in Toronto it's one of the hippest places to grab a bite. In fact, Torontonians thrive on little pockets of subculture, from Greektown - where old Greek men sit on the streets to bask in the sun as if they were back in the Mediterranean - to Little Portugal. The newest destination in the city has been dubbed Little Japan, with matcha cafes and ramen noodle spots. Uncle Tetsu, the celebrated Japanese cheesecake brand, chose Canada's largest city to open its first store outside of Asia. 

"Everywhere you turn there is a new little area with its own history and niche market," says one friend. "I have had dates that are just walking around Toronto - some of the best dates of my life."

One of the benefits of being a relatively young country is that Canadians don’t have centuries of marginalisation or nostalgic ideals to overcome. In 1971, it was the first country to adopt multiculturalism as an official policy (that's only eight years after Martin Luther King Jr delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech).

It's always been a place for immigrants and the start of a new life. 

"Toronto cannot exist without immigrants and vice versa and the acknowledgement of that relationship and it's appreciation is what makes Toronto stand out," says a local woman who's lived in the city her whole life.

Another woman told me that the level of integration of different cultures doesn't cross her mind because it's such a norm. “It feels like such a natural thing. But when I step back, I probably am taking it for granted.”

“I think that’s quite important in showing it’s not just one model to get social progress, it’s not just the Scandinavian or Nordic model. Other countries, Canada being a great example, have other models,” says Michael Green, the executive director of the Social Progress Imperative, which compiles the Social Progress Index. “Canada has somehow found a good mix, a good solution to this hard problem that other countries could learn from.”

Of course, every society comes with problems and Toronto is by no means perfect - housing is increasingly unaffordable and public transportation is poor - but the one thing the city does well at is bridging gaps and promoting diversity.

And it's not just ethnic equity that it has succeeded at. Gay marriage has been legal in Canada for over a decade and when Prime Minister Trudeau was asked to explain his gender parity promise in November last year, he answered: “Because it’s 2015.” 

Here are three lessons we can all learn from the land of maple syrup:

Three lessons from Canada: the key to a happy country

Integration is better than assimilation
There's a lot of Trumpism filling the world right now and it's spreading like a bad smell. Two months after Britain voted to leave the European Union, xenophobic hate crimes are allegedly on the rise. A Polish woman was told to get off a bus and “get packing” and group of men cornered a Muslim girl shouting, “Get out, we voted leave”. But as Canada proves, multiculturalism is the solution, not the problem.

“Over four decades, incredibly rapid demographic change has transformed Canada, especially its largest cities,” writes ​Irene Bloemraad, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, in an essay penned in 2010. “In Europe, similar change has resulted in riots and cultural tensions that have tarnished the concept of multiculturalism there. But, in Canada, these changes, despite many challenges, happened peacefully, productively and positively.”

Encourage equity rather than hierarchy 
One of the greatest areas I've noticed Toronto's sense of unity and cohesion in is in the workplace. I have seen examples of people in a corporate environment who have worked both in London and Toronto, who have spoken about a sense of equity in Toronto among managers and junior staff. 

“It was important for senior management at a firm to be able to mesh freely with the more junior staff. It generally resulted in better integration and in turn, better morale,” said one friend. However, in London they noted a strong sense of hierarchy which often resulted in adverse effects.

The key to a more harmonious working environment is to put less value on hierarchal boundaries and encourage friendships in those areas instead. 

Value mental health just as much as physical health
When a doctor friend of mine in Toronto said she spent hours with a patient struggling with depression and anxiety the other day she stopped me in my tracks. I have never spoken to my GP about my feelings and concerns. She told me it's all a part of the service her hospital provides for its patients - if someone is going through a terrible divorce it will affect their health and they'll need to talk about it. 

She credits in part Canadian telecommunications firm Bell which has spearheaded a campaign to end the stigma surrounding mental illness, raising a total of $80 million (£47 million) over the course of six years. “Bell Let's Talk” signs were in coffee shops and public spaces to encourage people to talk about their anxieties and change behaviours towards mental health issues. “People took notice and helped to build it. On Bell Let’s Talk Day, I had patients telling me they spoke about a personal issue with a friend and now they were coming in to talk about it some more,” she said.

Images: Sejal Kapadia Pocha, Rex Features

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Sejal Kapadia Pocha

Sejal Kapadia Pocha covers stories about everything from women’s issues to cult foods. She describes herself as a balance between Hermione and Luna Lovegood.