Cablegate: Toronto's Iranian Diaspora

DE RUEHON #0044/01 0461308
R 151308Z FEB 08





E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: Toronto's Iranian Diaspora

TORONTO 00000044 001.2 OF 003

Sensitive but Unclassified: Please Protect Accordingly.

1. (SBU) SUMMARY: At over 60,000 residents, Toronto's Iranian
Community is a small but visible group in a city where over half of
its 4 million people are foreign-born. Concentrated in the northern
neighborhoods and suburbs of Canada's largest city, Toronto's
Iranian community is constantly growing, sustained by liberal
Canadian immigration policies, the draw of family already here,
employment opportunities, excellent educational institutions, and
changing political conditions in Iran itself. Drawing on
conversations with Iranian community representatives, 2006 Canadian
Census data, online resources, and consular databases, this cable
profiles a small, strategically important, but in our experience
politically disengaged immigrant community in Canada's most diverse
metropolis. END SUMMARY.

Iranian Immigration to Toronto

2. (U) The first substantial wave of Iranian immigration to Toronto
(as well as Montreal and Vancouver, the other major Canadian
immigrant destinations) arrived in the decade following the
1978-1979 Islamic revolution, as the Iranian diaspora sought havens
in Western Europe, the United States, and Canada. Canada's
relatively liberal immigration and refugee acceptance policies have
allowed a steady stream of family and employment-based immigration
to Canada over the past three decades, a trend that gained momentum
in the 1990s, when over 20,000 Iranian nationals immigrated to
Canada. Throughout, a plurality has settled in Toronto; recent
Statistics Canada census data shows that 44% of Canada's Iranian
community lives in the Greater Toronto Census Metropolitan Area
(CMA). Of the nearly 28,000 Iranian immigrants arriving in Canada
between 2001 and 2006, 14,010 initially settled in the Toronto CMA,
with Montreal, Vancouver, and Ottawa absorbing most of the rest.

A Self-Contained Community

3. (U) In a city with over 180 nationalities, the Iranian community
is relatively small, particularly compared with the massive and
largely unassimilated Chinese and South Asian communities, and the
more assimilated, but still prominent Italian and Portuguese
communities. Based on census data surveying "mother tongue" (which
includes Iranian citizens as well as residents of Iranian ethnicity
that have Canadian or other citizenship), 65,025 or 1.2% of
residents in the Toronto CMA are Farsi speakers. In comparison,
nearly 400,000 Toronto CMA residents count a Chinese dialect as
their mother tongue, and 190,000 residents indicate Italian is their
preferred language. The number of Farsi speakers is roughly equal
to French speakers (an official language for all government services
in Toronto and Ontario), and slightly ahead of the number of Arabic

4. (SBU) The Iranian community is concentrated in the northern
reaches of the City of Toronto, and the near north suburb of
Richmond Hill. Census data shows that Farsi speakers live in a
self-contained, almost insular, community.

5. (SBU) In 11 of Toronto's 1,076 CMA census tracts, Farsi is the
second most common mother tongue (after English). Seven of those
tracts abut a 2 km. stretch of Yonge Street, Toronto's major
North-South thoroughfare, with the remainder scattered throughout
the city. In 49 other census tracts clustered primarily in the
northern suburbs, the concentration of Farsi speakers is higher than
the 1.2% Greater Toronto CMA average.

6. (SBU) Many Iranians speak only Farsi at home. Of the 22,795
Farsi-speaking City of Toronto residents (as opposed to the much
larger Census Metropolitan Area), nearly 64% reported using only
Farsi in their homes. In nearby Richmond Hill, one of the
wealthiest suburbs, 55% of 6,815 Farsi speakers use the language
exclusively at home.

TORONTO 00000044 002.2 OF 003

7. (SBU) The physical landscape of these neighborhoods of northern
Toronto reflects this preference for using Farsi in daily life.
Farsi signs dominate storefronts along several blocks of Yonge
Street. Restaurants, news kiosks, money changers, real estate
agents, and banks all make active efforts to court Farsi-speaking
customers. Several Shi'a mosques in Toronto cater to the Iranian
community. Annual Nowruz celebrations in North York draw tens of
thousands. The same area is home to a large number of Chinese and
Korean immigrants, and abuts a Russian, largely Jewish neighborhood.
All seem to coexist peacefully.

8. (SBU) Toronto is also home to a vibrant Farsi media. Iranian
satellite television channels based in Los Angeles are available on
cable systems, and two basic cable networks run regular programming
in Farsi. Toronto-based Iranians publish internet blogs in Farsi
and English, and several Farsi newspapers publish on a weekly basis.
Based on Farsi-language newspaper and TV advertising, one could
gain the impression that the overriding passions of the Iranian
community are real estate and matchmaking services. Hundreds of
real estate agents of Iranian descent advertise in Toronto's Farsi
media, focusing on the condo boom that is particularly intense in
the northern suburbs heavily populated by the Iranian community.

9. (SBU) Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) statistics suggest
concerted efforts to compete for the "Iranian Pocketbook" are
well-justified. Iran is regularly among the top 10 countries of
origin for recipients of investor and entrepreneur immigrant visas
to Canada.

Little Appetite for Political Activity

10. (SBU) Contacts in the Iranian community, when queried about
their attitudes towards political developments in Iran, assert that
the Iranians in Toronto are by and large disengaged from
developments in their homeland. Mohsen Taghavi, editor of the
Farsi/English weekly "Salaam Toronto" told Poloff that the 2008
Majlis elections, and other political events in Iran, have generated
little or no interest in the community. Taghavi, who immigrated to
Canada in the late 1990s asserted that interest may rise again if a
credible reformer were to run for high office, but in the meantime,
a wide cross-section of the Iranian immigrant community has
disengaged from political events in their homeland.

11. (SBU) Behnam Esfanizadeh, chairman of the Toronto Iranian
Community Group, a North-York based organization, lamented that it
was impossible to organize the community around any sort of
political issue, either in Iran or Canada. Esfanizadeh detailed
difficulties in founding the "Iranian Canadian Congress" in November
2007, as a forum for focusing the Iranian community in Toronto on
broader political issues. While active, Esfanizadeh admitted the
organization had not achieved the hoped-for goal of politically
energizing Iranians in Toronto.

Students: The New Wave

12. (SBU) The Iranian student community is a large, organized, and
visible presence at all major universities in Ontario. CIC
statistics suggest the number of Iranian students in Canada has
doubled since 2003, with many, if not most studying at Ontario
universities. Some institutions, like the University of Waterloo
(UW) and the University of Western Ontario (UWO), host a significant
number of Iranian graduate students in the sciences. Many graduate
students in Toronto are studying physics, mechanical engineering,
and biology. Others study nuclear engineering (NOTE: UW and UWO,
in conjunction with McMaster University, offer a master's degree
program in nuclear reactor design called the University Network of
Excellence in Nuclear Engineering. END NOTE).

13. (SBU) Based on anecdotal evidence from U.S. visa interviews,

TORONTO 00000044 003.2 OF 003

many Iranian students are here temporarily on scholarships from the
Iranian Government and fully intend to return to Iran at the
completion of their studies. Given the technical background of many
students, their U.S. visas are subject to administrative processing
and review. Over the past couple of years, however, only one
Iranian visa applicant-a female engineering student-has been denied
a U.S. visa on national security grounds (in 2006).

14. (SBU) Generally, Iranian student organizations appear to be
apolitical, serving primarily as a social hub for students of
Iranian descent. The executive membership (and we assume the
membership at large) is almost exclusively students in the
engineering professions and life sciences, career choices that are
near certain pathways to well paying jobs after graduation. The
events offered (lectures, social events, tutoring, etc.) are similar
to those offered by student organizations of other nationalities.
Indicative of their non-political orientation, Iranian student
organizations criticized a 2007 conference organized by Conrad
Grebel University of Waterloo (a Mennonite institution) that invited
Iranian scholars from the Imam Khomeni Education and Research
Institute in Qom.

--------------------------------------------- -------
From the Visa Line: One week in Los Angeles, Please
--------------------------------------------- -------

15. (SBU) From February 2007 to February 2008, Consulate General
Toronto issued 811 visas to Iranian citizens. Younger applicants
and long-term residents are usually well prepared, polite and
cooperative during their interviews. Much of Toronto's Iranian
population arrived in Canada in the 1970s and '80s as young adults
and became Canadian citizens, who do not need visas to visit the
U.S. Their now-elderly parents frequently appear at the Consulate
after being in Canada for a short time, seeking visas to visit
relatives in the United States. Few of these applicants speak
English, and they rely on their children to translate for them.
These applicants have often successfully traveled to the United
States in the past. Others have been refused in Dubai or Ankara and
are trying their luck in Toronto (previously refused applicants
generally receive the same answer in Toronto). Due to the 1 entry,
3 month validity of U.S. visas for Iranians, many applicants are
"repeat customers," appearing several times per year. However, we
see relatively few applicants who have been in Canada longer than
the three year period required for Canadian naturalization,
suggesting that many Iranians become Canadian citizens at the
earliest possible opportunity. We have heard that the Canadian
federal government carefully screens every Iranian citizen who
applies for Canadian citizenship or permanent residence.

16. (SBU) COMMENT: The Iranian community in Toronto, due to its
geographic concentration and relative wealth, has a visibility in
the region far exceeding its actual size. A variety of
"pull-factors" including a liberal, qualifications-based immigration
system, family ties, accessible higher education, and the critical
mass of services, mosques, and marriage prospects in the area all
work together to ensure that Toronto's Iranian community will
continue to grow. The comparative difficulty of immigrating to the
U.S., along with Canada's acceptance of large numbers of Iranians
after the Islamic revolution and hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong
Chinese in the mid-1990s, reinforce Canada's reputation as a safe
haven for Iranians or others seeking an antidote to their homeland's
political uncertainty and cultural and economic malaise. Toronto's
Iranians seem to focus on the usual economic pursuits of recent
immigrants. We found them to be comparatively uninterested in
domestic politics (Canadian or Iranian) and international relations.


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