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Little India in Ottawa Suburbia (So Many Changes, So Many Questions!)

New Indian restaurant in suburbia, Ottawa, October 2021
New Indian restaurant in suburbia, Ottawa, October 2021

I went to bed in suburbia, Ottawa, and I woke up one morning in Little India.

This is not a Bollywood movie scenario straight out of a dream. It’s just… you know, another side of life in Canada.

My corner of North American suburbia in Ottawa is as typical as it gets—architecturally bland with the usual mix of townhomes and semi-detached properties; culturally diverse with neighbours from Lebanon, Ukraine, the Philippine, China, Vietnam and Serbia; predictably quiet except for two daily spikes in traffic when office workers in their SUVs get stuck behind yellow school buses. Like countless of other suburbs, this one is overall safe, peaceful, conventional and other boring adjectives real estate agents will happily throw in if you swing by for a viewing during an open house tour designed to make you crave an idealized middle-class lifestyle.

This particular suburb has been my home base for almost two decades now, but two hundred years may have gone by for all I know because suburbia doesn’t change, like, ever. Roofs are replaced and driveways are repaved for “curb appeal,” first-time homebuyers move in and move out to upgrade for a bigger place with alarming regularity, but demographics remain more or less the same.

Well, until now. Suburbia is changing in front of my eyes and I find it very entertaining.

First, I noticed that well-known franchised restaurants and other family-friendly, crowd-pleaser businesses suburban residents may need—think chain haircut places, chiropractors and mattress stores—have closed permanently at one point during the pandemic. And now, new small businesses are moving into vacant commercial space, mostly ethnic restaurants or cannabis stores. The overpriced “wine mom” spa at the end of the street? New cannabis store. Furniture store? Another cannabis shop. Subway restaurant? Now a Nigerian grill.

Basically, come over to suburbia if you want to smoke pot and discover the world through food. Unexpected, eh?

Another change is taking place. I’m watching the birth of Little India.

Our new next-door neighbours, two students and two workers, are fresh-off-the-plane from India. The commercial space that used to house a Quiznos sandwich shop, then a Vietnamese phở restaurant, is now a brand-new “Punjabi canteen” daring Tim Hortons customers to skip toasted bagels and cross the parking lot to give Indian-style breakfast a try (honestly, they should). I swear I’m not exaggerating, I keep on seeing young Indians moving in, hauling microwaves and other home essentials from WalMart—where, by the way, the “International food” aisle is now 99% Indian groceries and 1% Italian-Chinese-British-whatever.

I know, it sounds like the beginning of a racist rant—how dare they, moving in with roommates in suburbia, an environment designed for Ottawa-bred government workers and first-time homebuyers who will eventually have kids and move to a bigger house in a farther, blander, safer suburb!

But hey, you know me, this is not a racist rant. And if you don’t know me, let me tell you I find other cultures absolutely fascinating, so a chance to spice up suburbia and meet new people is making my day.

Obviously, there are people from India or of Indian descent in Ottawa, but much less than in the Greater Toronto Area where almost 51% of the entire Indian Canadian community lives. Foreign-born residents in Ottawa tend to come from China, Vietnam, Somalia, Haiti, many parts of Europe… but not really from India. Different cities, different communities. Same goes with French immigrants. Sure, there are a few of us in Ottawa and elsewhere but if you want to hear “merde” with a Parisian French accent, Montreal is your best bet.

What’s even more fascinating to me is that it’s not anecdotal as in “eh, two of three Indian families moved in”. Dozens of mostly twenty- and thirtysomethings young Indians are coming straight from India and moving in the neighbourhood.

Our next-door neighbours, the four roommates, are newcomers. I know, they told me when we first met in September. They don’t have kids and pets but roommates, many of them. They don’t have a car, they walk or bike to places. They walk around the block late at night making phone calls back home in languages and dialects I can’t decipher. They take pictures of presumably “exotic” squirrels and rabbits. They look happy and curious.

This is awesome. It makes a refreshing change.

Now, I’m curious too. Why is 0.0005% of India suddenly settling in Ottawa? Is it another impact of the housing crisis, i.e Ottawa becoming “Plan B” because it’s slightly more affordable than Toronto? Or is Ottawa a trendy city in parts of India? Does it feel like “moving day” simply because borders were closed for 20 months and now the backlog of students, workers and permanent residents is finally being tackled?

I might ask our next-door neighbours if we get to know each other better. They are super friendly and they probably have interesting insights. For now, I’ll let them settle in and yes, I can sign for your Amazon package, no worries.

Whatever your background is, no matter what brought you to Canada, welcome.

Make yourself at home.

I hope you’ll enjoy the adventure and your new life.

New Indian restaurant in suburbia, Ottawa, October 2021
New Indian restaurant in suburbia, Ottawa, October 2021

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