Community Life

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

Individual life in the Gujarati community is lived in relation to many social groups that form a set of concentric circles. At the centre is one’s family, which is surrounded by ever-broadening networks based on kinship; caste and subcaste; broader Gujarati organizations – social or religious; the still larger Indian community; and finally Canadian society at large. All these national and subnational group identities animate Gujarati life in varying degrees. A similar situation exists in other immigrant groups, but what distinguishes the Gujarati community, particularly in Toronto, is the emergence of the many intermediate levels of groups and group identities, such as caste, subcaste, religious sect, and subregional Gujarati organizations.

For many Gujaratis, the most intense social, intellectual, emotional, and cultural intercourse occurs within the three inner groupings of family and kin, caste and subcaste, and broader Gujarati organizations. Except on a few occasions even other segments of the Indian community do not touch their lives very much, and generally the interaction with the rest of Canadian society occurs only in the workplace and in other economic spheres. Gujaratis do not, however, live in small enclaves of their own caste or community but are fairly scattered in mixed neighbourhoods. Yet, the tendency to buy houses not too far from other Gujaratis or from a centre of socialization, such as their newly emerging temples and cultural centres, is beginning to result in rather broadly based concentrations of higher-income Gujaratis in some townships and suburban areas in the greater Toronto area.

The intermediate groups between the family and the larger Gujarati community have become viable where the community is large enough, as in metropolitan Toronto. In other places, Gujaratis have organized themselves into one social group, often not limited geographically to one city, such as the Gujarati Society of British Columbia and the Gujarati Cultural Society of Manitoba. Even when the size of the community does not warrant caste or subcaste organizations in one city, these identities are fulfilled by participation in nationwide or even continent-wide caste networks, although not on a day-to-day basis.

Toronto is an important centre of many of these networks. While the Maharashtrians in that city have only one community organization and the Bengalis two, there are more than fifteen Gujarati groups. The two oldest community organizations are the Gujarati Cultural Society of Toronto, founded in 1969, and Gujarat Samaj of Toronto, founded in 1972. The reason both came into existence within a three-year period, even though the entire Gujarati community at the time was too small to need two social organizations, lies in the north-south cultural division in Gujarat itself. The Gujarati Cultural Society is strongly associated with immigrants from south Gujarat, and Gujarat Samaj with those from the north, although both associations are formally open to all Gujaratis.

Below the community-wide groups, such as Gujarat Samaj and the Gujarati Cultural Society, are caste groups, such as the Brahmin Society of Toronto, Vanik Samaj of Toronto, or Patidar Samaj of Toronto. At the next level there are subcaste groups, such as Surati Patidar Mandal (a regional division of the Patidar caste associated with south Gujarat), the Lohana Cultural Association of Canada (largely for Gujaratis of East-African origin), and Chovisgam Patidar Samaj of Toronto (a Patidar subgrouping mainly for endogamous marriages originating from the designated twenty-four villages in north Gujarat). In addition, there are Gujarati religious associations, such as Shri Swaminarayana Satsang Mandal of Toronto and Shi Swaminaraya Bhakti Mandal, Toronto, the Sanatan Mandir Cultural Centre, and the Jain Society of Toronto. Toronto also boasts of an active youth group called the Young Gujarati Horizon Association of Toronto.

All these organizations maintain large, independent memberships, with some obvious overlapping among them, and a busy schedule of activities. Their separate identities are asserted most strongly when they compete with one another and with Gujarati groups from other cities in North America in the Gujarati Raas-Garba (folk dances) competition every year. They also cooperate with one another and participate in common community activities as constituent members of Toronto’s two umbrella organizations, the Federation of Gujarati Associations (FOGA) and the FOGA Charitable foundation, which were set up to coordinate the many Gujarati organizations in Toronto. Although the system has worked efficiently for the last seventeen years in allocating jurisdiction over activities to the FOGA or to its constituent members, a certain amount of strain has developed recently in this relationship. Defying FOGA’s jurisdiction over folk-dance competitions, Gujarat Samj and Vanik Samaj organized their own competition last year. Strained relations have also arisen over the construction of the Sanatan Mandir Cultural Centre, which Gujarat Samaj has completed recently after its offer to turn the project over to the FOGA was refused.