• Editor at The Migration Initiative

Second-generation Migrants' Integration in Small Canadian Cities

By: Michelle Nguyen

Silver Bean Cafe, Peterborough (Photo taken by Michelle Nguyen)


As a child of former Vietnamese refugees who moved to different cities of various sizes across Ontario, I often wondered how my family ended up living in Peterborough, a mid-sized city, 1.5 hours away from Toronto, with a population of 84,000. Why did they decide to stay, given that most immigrants in Canada go to the larger metropolitan centres? Throughout Canadian immigration history, many migrants have settled outside larger metropolitan centres through the Provincial Nominee Programs or private and government refugee sponsorship programs. In fact, my dad initially arrived in Peterborough because he was sponsored by a local church group in the early 1980s. Numerous studies, including those of Bernhard, Landolt, and Goldring (2009), Yoon (2016), and Bauder (2019) emphasize the importance of looking at migration and settlement decision-making through the lens of the family. However, within the literature on regionalization of migration in Canada, there is a lack of knowledge of second-generation migrants’ perspectives and experiences living in small and mid-sized cities. Researchers and policymakers would benefit from exploring second-generation migrants’ social integration practices outside of larger metropolitan centres. By doing this, they can gain more insights on how to better attract and retain migrants, as well as improve their sense of belonging, across several generations in small and mid-sized Canadian cities.


In my father’s first few years in Peterborough, he focused on learning English, finding employment, and sponsoring remaining family members from Vietnam. Then, he decided to move to Toronto to access a larger labour market. After my parents met and started a family, it became clear that my father’s precarious jobs in manufacturing factories could not support us, especially due to the high living costs in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). By the mid-2000s, we moved back to Peterborough, where my parents found work in family-operated nail salons. Like other immigrants who voluntarily settle in smaller cities for extended periods of time, my parents appreciated the affordable housing, reduced crowding, slower pace of life, friendliness of locals, and proximity to nature.


Reflecting on my family’s internal migration, I often wondered how different my life would have been had I continued to live in a city with a larger immigrant population and more ethnic diversity. In 2018, Statistics Canada reported that 93.9% of Peterborough’s population was white. Another Statistics Canada (2019) report stated that, since the 1970s, the ethnic composition of the second-generation population was becoming more diverse as more immigrants to Canada came from Asia, Africa and Latin America, instead of Europe. Researchers have noted that while first-generation migrants worried that they would experience barriers to equal opportunity to social mobility such as the lack of recognition of foreign credentials and language problems, their children were more concerned about discrimination, based on one’s ethnicity or race.

Although I did not feel alienated by my peers because of my ethnicity, I often struggled to share my heritage and yearned for spaces like the Vietnamese language classes or church youth groups that I attended in Mississauga. Some researchers explored second-generation experiences in exploring their cultural identity outside metropolitan centres, including Greek and Jewish youth in Halifax and the pressures they faced in maintaining their parents’ cultures and assimilating into dominant Canadian culture. The authors found that participants sometimes felt a double sense of marginalization because of their family’s migrant background and ethnicity. To feel part of an ethnic community, second-generation migrants sometimes leave the region to find larger ethnic communities in other places or stay and contribute to the existing community.


Second-generation migrants must be encouraged to participate in the local community to strengthen their sense of belonging. One study noted that second-generation migrants remain in the city that their immigrant parents moved to because of their involvement with their local ethnic community. In the absence of Vietnamese-led organizations in Peterborough, I volunteered at the New Canadians Centre, the local newcomer-serving organization. Through teaching newcomers English and hearing about the obstacles they faced integrating into mainstream society, I recognized that my family’s stories were not isolated. I was inspired to further explore my history and to cultivate spaces where newcomers could build ties with residents. Similarly, second-generation Vietnamese in Dayton, Ohio, shared that if they wanted to have a space for their cultural identity in that community, they had to create it themselves. Due to the lack of presence of strong ethnic communities in small and mid-sized cities, policymakers and municipal leaders must invest in multicultural spaces and programs that encourage migrants to embrace and share their cultural identities.


Another drawback of not having a strong ethnic community is the lack of ethnic-specific media, services, and goods. In response to that, my family took monthly trips to the GTA to buy groceries, attend cultural events, and collect Vietnamese weekly newspapers. While many migrants value proximity to large cities, not all migrants can take advantage of close proximity because they do not own drivers’ licenses or cars. In that way, a lack of public transportation options in the city and between regions negatively affects migrants’ integration experiences and social mobility. Researchers found that some second-generation migrants could not participate in after-school extra-curricular activities because they must rely on the school bus as their only means of returning home. This suggests that, to continue to attract newcomers, support their participation in social activities, and empower their sense of mobility, small and mid-sized cities must invest in building convenient and well-connected transportation systems.


Policymakers and researchers can gain a more nuanced understanding of why people are attracted to small and mid-sized cities and how they make decisions to move or stay, by drawing on the aspirations, perspectives, and experiences of both first and second-generation migrants. Doing so would allow them to see the benefits of investing in inclusive city planning that contributes to long-term newcomer settlement and integration and overall population growth. Julia Huynh’s “Chúng Tôi Nhẩy Đầm ở Nhà (We Dance at Home)" documentary showed that some members of the Vietnamese diaspora, who had lived in Peterborough for several decades, had grown attached to the small tight-knit Vietnamese community, and considered the city their home. The follow-up question, then, is do second-generation migrants see a future in the cities that their parents stayed in?


Existing studies on how cities welcome first-generation migrants must be accompanied by more research on second-generation migrants’ sense of belonging and attachment to municipal communities. Policymakers must expand beyond investing in newcomers’ immediate settlement needs to create intergenerational community spaces for cultural celebrations, organize language classes for the second-generation to maintain their mother-tongue language, and invest in transportation infrastructure to improve first and second-generation migrants’ access to different facilities and services. Taking those steps would allow small and mid-sized cities to adopt the multicultural, dynamic, and transnational characteristics that make larger metropolitan centres so appealing to immigrants and their families.

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