Bradford’s main immigrant communities in the past were Portuguese and Italian, but now there are more black and Asian residents, says councilor
It wasn’t easy in 1989 to be among the first people of color to move to Bradford West Gwillimbury, a then sleepy little farming town about 60 kilometers north of downtown Toronto.
Leaving Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighborhood, the Sandhus were the first Sikhs to settle in Bradford. Their children were the first to wear turbans at the local high school. A brother later became the first Sikh police officer with a local police force.
And Raj Sandhu became Bradford’s first person of color to be elected to City Council.
“I am proud of this achievement,” says Sandhu. “I hope to represent a new voice in the community.”
Sandhu has been a councilor for Ward 1 in Bradford since 2010 and is currently running for deputy mayor.
The Sandhus were at the forefront of a vast demographic shift in rural Ontario, a movement that would accelerate over the years and then be driven even faster by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Immigration is vitally important to Ontario. In fact, provincial immigration ministers from Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are meeting with federal immigration minister Sean Fraser in Saint John, New Brunswick, urging him to do more to attract immigrants, particularly in the skilled trades, and to allow provinces to select newcomers in response to their own specific labor market needs.
Meanwhile, many immigrant families in Ontario are moving from heavily populated urban areas to small towns and rural communities. One of these cities is Bradford.
There are many reasons why people from urban areas like the GTA move to Bradford, but the most important are affordability and its proximity to Toronto.
“Bradford has grown from a sleepy little town to a thriving suburban town,” says Mark Contois, a Bradford councilor of Aboriginal descent.
As an advisor since 2006, Contois has gone through tremendous changes. The city has experienced a population boom, growing to 42,880 in 2021, an increase of 21.4% in just five years.
“It was certainly planned growth,” says Bradford Mayor Rob Keffer, referring to a 2002 community plan that aimed to dramatically increase the population while retaining a “small town” character.
The infographic map above shows population trends between 2016 and 2021 in the Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH) region of Ontario. Simcoe County (Bradford marked in red) has a high population change while the City of Toronto’s population change remains low, below the national rate. (Chart created by Daphne Dossios, with data provided by Stats Canada.)
With easy access to Highway 400 and GO Transit, people can travel to Toronto relatively easily for work or play.
In fact, Ontario considers cities like Bradford to be instrumental in the province’s overall growth.
“The province is working with us at the municipal level to help respond to the huge influx of people,” says Keffer.
Keffer says there’s a lot to watch out for in his role as mayor, like creating new jobs by growing the city’s industrial sector, cutting commute times by improving roads and public transportation, and addressing demand for housing thanks to more residential construction.
Another important factor is keeping up with the growing diversity of its citizens. Historically, Bradford was not really a first landing place for many immigrants.
“Bradford is usually a second or third destination for new Canadian immigrants,” says Isabel Oliveira, administrator of Bradford Immigrant and Community Services. “People who migrate to Canada for the first time do not know Bradford, but then settle here for a variety of reasons.”
Contois says that in the past, the city’s largest immigrant communities were the Portuguese and Italians.
Sandhu has witnessed first-hand the changing demographics of the city. Bradford was generally welcoming to Sandhu as he grew up in the area, but he had his share of racist encounters.
“Part of it was casual racism, like ignorance and stereotyping, but I also had my house at one point,” says Sandhu.
Over the years, Sandhu says he sees more diversity in the city’s demographics. He noticed more black and Asian families moving in.
Sandhu says one of the reasons immigrant families move to Bradford is because they wanted to get away from heavily populated areas that were prone to more crime and danger. According Maclean’s magazine, Bradford is ranked among the 10 safest places to live in Canada.
Another reason is the price of housing.
Nevertheless, it is important to ensure that the resources are there to accommodate various cultures, religions and groups of people.
After the tragedy of George Floyd, Bradford Council took the time to strengthen its goals to ensure the city welcomes everyone.
The city has expanded its already existing Diversity Action Group (which was founded by Sandhu) to include an anti-racism program, where activists and members of diverse communities can share their experiences.
Contois understands the importance of listening to the experiences of BIPOC citizens. Growing up with an Indigenous heritage, he understood the prejudice and racism that comes with being a person of color.
“I personally didn’t get a lot of backlash because I looked white, but I see what’s going on with my native cousins,” Contois says.
Contois says the board looked to see how it could improve things going forward. They knew that to understand what needed to be done, they needed to listen to diverse voices to understand how to improve experiences. It also means taking responsibility and learning from mistakes.
“We started by looking within,” says Contois. “What policies can we change or completely revise? »
This included looking at things like hiring policies, ensuring equality for all, and budgeting for cultural events like Black History Month.
“I’m proud of Bradford,” Contois said. “We really took matters into our own hands.”
Even with population growth, Contois says the only thing that matters is keeping the town’s identity.
“We are a talk-to-your-neighbour city and we anticipate it to be that way,” says Contois.
Jeffery Tram, Local Journalism Initiative, New Canadian Media. The ILJ is funded by the Government of Canada.