by Raji Jayaraman
Despite living here for nearly three years now, I have no social life to speak of. At risk of sounding self-loathing, a not insignificant part of the problem is probably just me: I’m not the most social person in the world. Plus, there’s the pandemic, which hit six months after we moved here. But I don’t think it’s just me, or even just the pandemic. An awful lot of people who moved here as adults, decades ago, and are much nicer and more sociable than I am, have said the same thing: making friends in Toronto is hard.
What avenues are there to building friendships? I’m sure it’s different for different people, but looking back to where my closest friendships originated, you have the usual suspects: 1. school, 2. university, 3. parents of my kids’ friends, 4. work, and 5. neighbours. I realize that this list is incomplete. A more well-rounded person would probably have a sixth item: an activity of some sort. A sport, maybe, or a cultural undertaking. But this is Canada. It’s cold for most of the year, and ice hockey is not my thing. (There are certain sports, which require you to travel at unnaturally high speeds on your own two feet, that you will never master unless you learned them at a young age, before you realize that you are not immortal. Most winter sports fall in this category and I was raised in the tropics.) As for cultural activities, they are usually organized around homogenous groups—bound by things like religion or ethnicity—and getting away from that kind of uniformity was precisely the attraction of a place like Toronto.
Options one to three have served me well in the past. My largest and oldest single group of friends date back to school; I’m still close to a couple of friends from university; and occasionally go on holiday with one set of parents of my kid’s school friend. But time moves inexorably forward, and I was fully aware that as a middle-aged woman with teenage kids, these first three options were off the table. I had, naïvely as it turns out, banked on options 4 and 5, given Canada’s reputation for friendliness and love of diversity. You must understand, I moved here from Germany, where “integrate” is often code for “assimilate”, except that assimilation is purely aspirational for anyone who does not look the part.
Canada was supposed to be different.
Integration into Canadian society was supposed to be (if not easy, then) easier. Canada is a country whose modern foundations are built on the idea of cultivating and celebrating diversity. Hence the metaphor of Canada as a mosaic, whose distinct immigrant identities combine to constitute a coherent, colourful whole. The Canadian mosaic is often used in flattering contrast to the U.S. melting pot. But even that doesn’t do Canada justice because, at risk of taking the metaphor too literally, the uniformity of individual tesserae in modern mosaics belies the pattern of heterogeneity in (at least urban) Canada.
Toronto’s diversity is extraordinary, but not (only) because of the variety of ethnicities and cultures it houses. It is extraordinary because variety prevails within social groups. Whether around a picnic blanket in the park, at a restaurant table, or in the community swimming pool, you see people who belong to all sorts of different ethnicities. This heterogeneity extends even to families. In many neighbourhoods, inter-racial couples are the rule, not the exception, and their kids (like mine) are impossible to place. They’re half this and half that or, not uncommonly, a quarter each of four completely different national ingredients, one of whose non-Latin-based languages they speak fluently. The city of Toronto is no post-racial utopia, but it probably lies en route to one.
All of which is to say, I arrived in this city that seemed engineered for inclusion, fully expecting to be embraced into its fold. Turns out, just because society is mixed doesn’t mean it wants to mix with you. Putting personal idiosyncrasies aside for the sake of argument, why might that be? As far as I can tell, a major reason why many of us late-in-life arrivals are excluded from membership in the Canadian Club is that social structure in Canada is built around the family. This has implications for my remaining two friendship-building channels: work (option 4) and neighbours (option 5).
Work friends have remained elusive because lunch at my workplace is consumed at one’s desk and grabbing a quick drink after work or meeting up on the weekend are out of the question since evenings and weekends are reserved for family. So, in effect, option 4 is out of the running. This is not to say that there is no mixing between different families in the neighbourhood. Sadly, aforementioned mixing does not include my family because, as far as I can tell, membership in your neighbourhood Canadian Club is determined by contemporaneous neighbourhood-level childbirth: you hang out with parents of your children’s friends in your neighbourhood. And because local public schools are wonderful—which is another great thing about Canada—your social circle remains intact for at least as long as your children are in the house.
To be fair, this structure has served Canada rather well, especially the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Canada has had an exceptionally low Covid-related mortality and enjoys a high vaccination rate. Part of this can, no doubt, be attributed to Canadians’ enduring faith in science and their trust in government, for which one can only be grateful. But part of their success in weathering this storm lies in the fact that “social bubbles” are not an alien construct. They are familiar to Canadians, who have long lived in resilient, seemingly impenetrable, family-plus bubbles. Good for them and good for everyone from an infectious disease perspective. Not so good if, even outside a pandemic, you were relying on your new neighbours for a social life.
If I sound self-pitying or complaining, I apologize. I don’t mean to. I have a full life and am grateful for everything that I have, including the opportunity to live here. I’m just trying to make sense of the disconnect between my historical experience making friends and my Canadian experience, trying to bridge the gaping hole between my expectations and my reality.
What makes the seeming impregnability of Canadian society so disorienting for me (and I suspect, other optimistic late comers like me) is that the rules of admission to the Canadian Club are so obscure. Unlike other parts of the world, social acceptance tends not to be based on racial, ethnic, or cultural identity, or on social hierarchies. (To be clear: I’m not recommending these strictures. They’re horrid. I’m just remarking on their transparency.) True to common stereotypes, Canadians are almost invariably kind and friendly. They live in attractively diverse neighbourhoods, and many (at least in our neighbourhood) do in fact leave their doors unlocked. It comes as a shock, then, to realize that although their doors are open, the gates are barred and entrance to your local Canadian Club is, bizarrely, determined largely by accident of birth. Since I can do nothing about that, it may be time to take up hockey.