Economic Life

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Gujaratis/Rasesh Thakkar

The economic strains of immigration were felt by both groups of Gujarati immigrants. The East-African Gujaratis came to Canada, not in search of a better life but with a sense of loss and regret for the settled life they had left behind. For the Ugandan exiles, trauma and destitution were their shared experience. Those who came in the 1960s, however, particularly from Kenya and Tanzania, had been able to transfer a good part of their wealth abroad and were generally in a better economic position to establish themselves in Canada.

All the immigrants from East Africa, including the Ugandan exiles, had experience functioning in a Western business environment, and many of them had British education and professional experience. In an amazingly short time most of them had established themselves in business or the professions, in jobs in the government sector or in small manufacturing, or in skilled trades. None of the Ugandan refugees remained on welfare. More than one major industrial family brought considerable wealth to Canada when they immigrated. Since their business establishments were already international, they had no difficulty in reaching a very high level of economic activity in Canada, and today they are multimillionaires.

For the Gujaratis from India, however, who came with less sense of loss, and in the hope of making a better life for themselves in Canada, functioning in the new society was more difficult than for the East-African Gujaratis. Often their educational qualifications and professional credentials were not recognized unless they had earned them in Britain or the United States, and they lacked the Canadian experience necessary to qualify for a good job. Particularly in the 1970s, when anti-Indian racial feelings were aroused by a dramatic influx of South Asians into the Canadian economy at a time when it was undergoing great strain, many Gujaratis were forced to accept almost any job, usually below their qualifications and often unrelated to their skills. But they slowly moved into jobs in sales, insurance, or real estate. Some, with the advice and even financial help of their kinship networks, were able to set up small businesses. This pattern was particularly true of the Patidar community, which had a tradition, based on internal cohesiveness and kinship connections, of helping new immigrants until they were comfortably set up in business.

Gujarati family, kinship, and community connections extended all over North America, and with their help, it was not uncommon for a Canadian-Gujarati immigrant to obtain an American “green card” and establish a business in the United States. A classic case of this kind of chain help among relatives and friends with caste or village ties can be seen in the dramatic expansion of the Patel community’s hotel and motel business in the United States, where they are thought to control 30 percent of the industry. By offering members interest-free loans and access to capital available within the group, they have risen above conflicting self-interests and built a small economic empire in the hotel industry.

Most Gujarati Canadians have achieved a fair degree of economic security, and some have attained high levels of prosperity. Both men and women across all age groups participate significantly in the labour force. According to the 1991 census, their total labour-force participation in Ontario is about 74 percent, compared to Canada’s national rate of 67.9 percent. Although the unemployment rate among Ontario Gujaratis, both male and female, is 12 percent, compared to Canada’s national rate of 10 percent, the unemployment rates for male Gujaratis in Ontario and all male Canadians are almost identical at 10 percent.

Gujarati Canadians are generally seen as enterprising and entrepreneurial; they engage in diverse occupations, but with heavy concentrations in the professional, business, managerial, and sales and service sections and relatively little involvement in the industrial labour force or farming. The 1991 census figures for Ontario show that about 45 percent of Gujarati men in the labour force work as professionals, businessmen, and senior and middle managers; 30 percent are employed in sales, service, and clerical jobs; 18 percent are in semiskilled and manual jobs; and only 7 percent work in crafts. An overwhelming proportion of Gujarati women in the labour force (66 percent) are engaged in sales, service, and clerical work; only 16 percent are professionals or middle managers and none are senior managers; almost 18 percent are in semiskilled jobs.

Some Gujarati professionals and businessmen operate internationally, while others are small shopkeepers and grocery-store owners, whose businesses play an important role in the Indian community’s economic and social life. In between, there are equally enterprising and variably successful pharmacists, insurance brokers, medical practitioners, chemists, lawyers, computer-store owners, travel agents, real-estate agents, car dealers, owners of sari and jewellery shops, developers, and so on.

Although there is a fair amount of income disparity among Gujaratis, their average income in 1991 was close to the national average. The census data, however, do not reveal the true picture because there is a significant accumulation of wealth in the Gujarati community, and a number of its members are millionaires. In addition to earning income from their employment or businesses, Gujaratis have a strong tradition of managing their personal finances shrewdly through investment. The wise management of a private portfolio is regarded as a sign of intelligence, and the display of wealth through pomp and philanthropy is the means of attaining high social status. The Gujarati word Abru has the double connotation of honour and credit worthiness, and thus the two are often equated in common thinking. To remain on welfare or any form of charity, except temporarily, is regarded as dishonourable. Mutual financial help among relatives, kin groups, and close friends, however, is expected and given without legal formalities, and debts are almost always honoured without default in the time-honoured tradition of this mercantile community. The social and economic ties reinforce each other and result in the strong cohesiveness of Gujarati kin groups.

With their professional and business orientation, many Gujaratis have been active members of the high-profile Indo Canada Chamber of Commerce in Toronto, and several have served as directors or presidents (including the first president) of the organization. A few Gujarati business houses operate worldwide in both manufacturing and trade, and many have close links with India. The only South Asian on a Canadian delegation to Cuba a few years ago was a Gujarati businessman from Toronto. Several successful Gujaratis have entered mainstream public life in Canada and have been elected to the boards of directors of universities, hospitals, and charitable foundations.

There is a high level of philanthropy among wealthy Gujaratis, who contribute large sums to religious causes and charity. The Chandaria Foundation in Toronto, which does charitable work in India, Canada, and other countries, is a glowing testimony to this aspect of Gujarati well-being. The Toronto head of the multigenerational and multinational Chandaria family business was recently honoured with the Humanitarian of the Year award given by Toronto’s Indo Canada Chamber of Commerce, and a year earlier another member of the family was chosen for its Businessman of the Year award. The family has a large number of business interests around the world, and their Toronto company, Comcraft Canada, controls a range of companies in Canada and the United States. The business interests of this leading Jain Gujarati family have evolved steadily since the family settled in Kenya in 1917. By 1978, when they immigrated to Canada, their business enterprise had grown, in a single generation, from its humble beginning in Nairobi to the position of a multinational giant.

There are a number of success stories among Gujarati entrepreneurs and professionals. A businessman who came to Canada as a Ugandan refugee has risen in less than twenty years to his current position as the president of a number of companies which operate a chain of pharmacies in Ontario in less than twenty years. The president of a highly successful real-estate brokerage and investment firm that is now at the top of its field came to Canada in 1965 and got his first job as a cashier for the Magistrates Court in Toronto. Two Jain Gujarati brothers, who came to Canada as students in the 1970s, have built up a multimillion-dollar business as North America’s largest supplier of dough to bakeries, and an innovative young Gujarati immigrant from East Africa has developed reflecting overhead highway signs, which have been installed along highway 401 in Toronto and which are now marketed all across North America and Europe. Gujarati women have set up thriving catering businesses, which not only provide food for large gatherings like weddings and official functions but also supply cooked food on a small scale to individual families. In short, Gujarati Canadians have lived up to the proverbial Gujarati spirit of economic enterprise, innovation, and hard work.