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This immigrant neighbourhood taught Canada what inclusion means

A largely Indian and Pakistani community with a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual population forced public health authorities to rethink their policies

The 82,000 residents of Brampton in Ontario, Canada are mostly immigrants, and the pressure of dealing with the needs of a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual population during a pandemic, forced public health authorities to rethink what inclusion really means. (Courtesy The Globe and The Mail)

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Toronto: Someone in the group spotted a 511 bus in the distance. Within minutes, they formed a semblance of a queue. Seats were limited, but missing this bus meant a 45-minute wait for the next. For Nisha (name changed on request), who routinely takes this bus to commute between the two warehouses she works in, a delay could impact how she is building her new life in an unfamiliar country.

Nisha, who hails from a village in Hoshiarpur, Punjab, moved to Canada in 2019 as a student. Like many international students from rural India, she arrived in the country hoping to land a well-paying job and a chance at the coveted goal: Canadian citizenship. Two years on, she found herself working in exploitative conditions in warehouses—she was paid below minimum wage in one, faced verbal abuse in both, and was made to stand for long hours without a break.

In April last year, when Ontario, Canada’s most densely populated province, was in the grip of a deadly third wave of Covid-19, Nisha asked her employer for paid overtime after several of her co-workers who tested positive for the infection continued to work. He threatened to report her to the government for accepting her income in cash—under-the-table payment, he said, would jeopardize her application for permanent residency. “I couldn’t afford to lose my job or my residency. I accepted it as part of the Canadian dream,” shrugged the 22-year-old, who lives in a cramped basement with five other women, all recent immigrants like her.

“Are you here for L6P or the warehouse?” asked Nisha, as the bus trundled past the sprawling Amazon Fulfillment Center, the large warehouse where she had just completed a 10-hour shift. For many on the bus, L6P was the final stop. The first three characters of a postal code in Brampton in Canada’s Greater Toronto Area, L6P made headlines for clocking the highest per capita cases in Ontario during Canada’s deadly third wave of Covid-19 from March to July 2021.

Personal stories across neighborhoods in this postal code, predominantly comprising immigrants from India and Pakistan, captured Canada’s Covid-19 crisis like no other: from the daily struggles of immigrants engaged in low-paying, exploitative work to the lack of support and language barriers they faced to living in substandard housing, and how these combined with other factors to put particular communities at risk. It also showed how loss and absence connected individuals and communities to take charge of their own narratives. This is the story of how the 82,000 residents here, mostly immigrants, and the pressure of dealing with the needs of a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-generational population during a pandemic, forced public health authorities to rethink what inclusion—an attribute Canada is known for in the immigration landscape—really means.

L6P and the making of a Covid-19 hotspot

L6P spans around ten neighbourhoods in Brampton, one of Canada's most important hubs for transport and logistics, owing to its proximity to the country’s largest and busiest airport, the Toronto Pearson International Airport. It’s home to new as well as generations of immigrants—taxi and truck drivers, students, new graduates looking for a break, eager workers waiting for visas and permits, and their families. Their cheap labour keeps massive warehouses and packaging units, including the 850,000sqft Amazon Fulfilment Center, running. Glossy billboards for real estate fight for space with dozens of flyers advertising driving schools for truckers, and basement units for international students. Unbroken swathes of bare land that sandwich dusty highways are sundered by sudden crests of colossal warehouses, banquet halls, a mandir, and semi-detached townhomes. It’s pockmarked with construction in upcoming neighbourhoods. Brampton is one of Canada’s fastest growing suburbs. But it wasn't any of this that caught Canada's attention in the midst of the pandemic

When much of the Greater Toronto Area went into lockdown from October 2020 till June 2021, a large section of L6P residents like Nisha were working overtime in warehouses, spending nights on the road transporting truckloads of medical and other essential supplies, or clocking hours in grocery stores. They kept Canada running. Besides, staying at home wasn’t an option. “A lot of them are recent immigrants. The fear of losing their jobs, their visas being revoked, or their families in India going hungry force them to keep going,” said Vicky Dhillon, a former city councillor of Brampton.

The highways that pass through Peel, the region Brampton is located in, are among the busiest in North America. Most truckers in Canada are of Indian or South Asian origin. They worked through the pandemic, delivering essentials.
The highways that pass through Peel, the region Brampton is located in, are among the busiest in North America. Most truckers in Canada are of Indian or South Asian origin. They worked through the pandemic, delivering essentials. (George Kuruvilla)

During the deadly third wave in Ontario in March 2021, L6P made headlines: the case rates here were four times Canada’s national average.

“It’s a largely trucking and logistics community residing in crowded, multigenerational households. Add a struggling healthcare system and a pandemic, and L6P was just waiting to go off,” said community activist Manan Gupta, a long-time Brampton resident. According to Gupta, the healthcare system was caught on the backfoot in Brampton, and L6P in particular. Brampton and its neighbouring communities have the fewest hospital beds per capita of any Ontario region. They have only one full-service hospital for a city of about 660,000 people.

“Systems are built based on needs, assumptions and projections. No one anticipated the current extent of immigration, especially concentrated in one pocket, L6P. The pandemic just exposed how underprepared we were,” said Gupta. Canadian national newspaper The Globe and Mail projected the population in L6P to touch 143,000 by 2031 based on an analysis by marketing research firm Environics Analytics. This is a 68 per cent rise from 2016, when the last census was conducted. Canada as a whole is expected to grow by 15 per cent in the same period.

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It was March 2020. Business was on as usual at the bristling Pearson International Airport. Everyone at Karan Singh Punian’s taxi stand knew there was a pandemic but Covid-19 was still far from them. Even as his colleagues turned down passengers arriving from hotspot countries, Punian, 59,opened his cab doors. “The mild-mannered man he was, he wouldn’t say no. Besides, he had a family to feed,” said his friend Rajinder Aujla, who is also the president of the Airport Taxi Association. 

The association estimates that nearly half of Pearson’s 1,500 drivers, most of whom are from India and Pakistan, live in L6P. Punian, who tested positive for Covid-19 at the end of March, isolated himself, but his symptoms worsened and he was eventually put on a ventilator at Toronto General Hospital, where he died. It would take six months and at least 11 more taxi drivers’ deaths before the Greater Toronto Airport Authority provided them with personal protective equipment. “We’ve only accounted for deaths, not those who lost their income, or fell sick and required hospitalization,” said Aujla. He estimated that 80 per cent of the drivers lost their income due to the decrease in air travel. The $1,800 a month they got in government assistance was insufficient to cover costs as most of them lived in multi-generational households.

However, residents in L6P were yet to bear the full impact of the devastation the pandemic would wreak in the community a year from then.

While taxi drivers struggled with personal and financial losses, another section of L6P saw opportunities open up in online retail, transportation and logistics, and other essential services. The lockdown had halted non-commercial traffic, but trucks dominated the roads. The highways that pass through Peel, the region Brampton is located in, are among the busiest in North America. In 2019, goods worth $1.8-billion transited through the region daily. Besides transporting loads to other parts of Canada, drivers also move goods across the Canada-US border, located l,740 km from Brampton. Sukhraj Singh Sandhu, 42, knows these roads like the back of his hand. When the pandemic hit, he was driving five days at a stretch, delivering medical supplies within Canada and to the US. “We knew our role was crucial, but we didn’t account for its toll on our families,” said Sandhu.

Everyone in Sandhu’s eight-member household in L6P tested positive for Covid-19 during the third wave in March 2021. His 77-year-old father required critical care for more than a month. Like the taxi drivers at Pearson International, it would be months before truckers made their way to the country’s list of frontline workers and administered vaccine on a priority-basis. Sandhu, who drove trucks in India before moving to Canada a decade ago, however, acknowledges the privilege of being a part of the trucking sector in Canada, which is highly regulated and lucrative. “All of us lost friends or family in India. They continued to truck goods even when the country shut down. They are our inspiration,” he said.

A community member gets vaccinated.
A community member gets vaccinated. (South Asian Covid Taskforce)

The Peel Public Health authorities couldn’t ignore L6P anymore. In March 2021, bus services on lines frequented by those working in popular warehouses were suspended after nine drivers tested positive for Covid-19 and one died. By April, at least 20 of 47 warehouses and distribution centres were temporarily shut. Health authorities found that almost a quarter of the workers in these 20 workplaces who tested positive continued going to work after the onset of symptoms, with several struggling to get paid sick leave. “Many essential workers were clearly exposed on the job,” said Peel Public Health in an email communication with Lounge.

When officials dug deeper, they found that precarious employment and lack of paid sick leave were only a few of the many impediments communities here faced. A picture of unequal pandemic experiences unfolded, divided by race, class, ethnicity, gender and age. For example, visible ethnic minorities represented 63% of Peel’s population, but they made up 83% of the Peel’s Covid-19 cases. At the peak of the third wave in April, race groups that were overrepresented among Covid-19 cases compared to their respective share of the Peel population were: South Asian (54.8%, 31.6%), Black (10, 9.5%), Middle Eastern (5.9% vs 4.1%) and Latino (3.5%, 2.3%).

The unfolding crisis drew the attention of the Canadian media. In May 2021, The Globe and Mail launched a series examining L6P in collaboration with a group of community journalists. “There hadn't been much mainstream media attention to L6P before Covid-19,” said Dakshana Bascaramurty, the publication’s national race and ethnicity reporter. To make the content more accessible, The Globe and Mail translated the content into Punjabi, Hindi, Gujarati and Urdu. They wanted the community to tell their stories in their own words. “Official data showed that L6P had many newcomers from India whose first language wasn’t English,” she said.

Dr Raj Grewal, 46, an emergency physician who grew up in L6P, understands the importance of language in reaching out to racialized communities. When public health authorities were baffled by the low testing and vaccination rates in the postal code, Dr Grewal and a dozen community leaders explained why. “A lot of the healthcare providers speak only English,” said Dr Grewal. Every time he spoke Punjabi to a patient, the relief was palpable. “Many didn’t know whatisolation meant. We needed to communicate in the language the community is most familiar with, and to build trust,” said Dr Grewal. He also discovered that a majority of his patients weren’t checking the government website or watching Canada’s popular English news channels for Covid-19 information. “They relied on WhatsApp forwards and the ethnic media, which weren’t on the public health department’s communication grid.”

Dr Grewal and his respirologist wife, Dr Anju Anand, made a short video in Punjabi guiding residents on how to get tested, and sent it to various community members on WhatsApp. As part of his mission to create public-health messages targeted specifically at immigrant communities, he co-founded the South Asian COVID Task Force. By March 2021, Brampton got its first COVID-19 assessment centre geared to the South Asian community with health messaging in at least nine languages, including Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Gujarati and Arabic. The location was familiar to the locals—a banquet hall. Dr Grewal was chosen as the medical director.

Dr. Raj Grewal and Dr. Anju Anand made a short video in Punjabi guiding residents on how to get tested and sent it to community members on WhatsApp.
Dr. Raj Grewal and Dr. Anju Anand made a short video in Punjabi guiding residents on how to get tested and sent it to community members on WhatsApp. (Instagram)

In four months, it became one of the province’s busiest testing centres. “Testing increased from 100 tests a day at the start to 400 a day. By April we had entire families testing positive,” said Dr Grewal. He attributed this to hiring staff who communicated in languages other than English, and running multilingual phone and online systems that allowed residents to book tests and vaccination in Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati and Urdu. The taskforce’s ambassadors were unusual too. “We roped in our fathers, grandfathers and uncles to spread the word and to sport T-shirts that said they got their ‘teeka’,” said Guri Pannu, a member of the taskforce.

The impact of communicating in a culturally relevant way was evident. “Engaging with the community in their language allowed us to get the information to the people and bring back concerns that were being expressed in this community. This was a game-changer in the pandemic response efforts,” said Peel Public Health in response to Lounge’s queries. Peel Public Health also found another way to protect workers: by bringing vaccines to job sites. By August, L6P climbed its way out of being one of the country’s worst hot spots. 

As of February 2022, 86 per cent of the residents have been vaccinated, among the highest in the Peel Region. “This was made possible only because of the groundwork laid over the last one year and the efforts spearheaded by multi-lingual doctors and members of the community,” said Peel Health, as the department combats the Omicron coronavirus variant. “Going forward we will look at all the community engagement and relationships we developed this past year. They will be very important as the pandemic and vaccination programme continues and the community recovers from all we have been through together and prepare for what is to come.”

This learning was adapted to other immigrant communities as well. “Other minority communities also face similar structural barriers,” said Dr Anand, adding that the taskforce now partners with 250 organizations that work for other ethnic minorities in Canada. “Solutions that work for Canada’s mainstream do not necessarily resonate with these communities. L6P taught us that.”

Also read: The children left behind by covid-19

Ekatha Ann John is a writer based in Canada.

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