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76th Annual Summer Conference, August 9–12, 2007

Are Canadian Institutions Adapting to Diversity?

Ratna Omidvar, Executive Director, The Maytree Foundation

Thank you very much for inviting me to speak to you about institutions and diversity. Let me start by talking about the institution that I work for – The Maytree Foundation, which is a relatively small foundation trying to make some big changes. As a private foundation we have our own endowment and invest a significant part of our resources in helping Canadians and Canadian government understand and work better with migration.

We do this for a sound business reason. We know that the prosperity of our nation and that of urban regions is closely tied to the prosperity of all the many immigrants who flock to our urban centres. We therefore see our engagement in migration and its attendant issues as a wise investment of private money for public good.

We have developed a particular way of approaching conversations that deal with issues of diversity, multiculturalism etc. We are always practical, we focus on the lived reality of people’s lives, and we don’t spend hours looking into a crystal ball arguing the strengths or weaknesses of the multiculturalism model. Rather we deal with its practical expression and focus on finding tangible and doable solutions that have reach. This is because we know that in centres like Toronto and Vancouver Diversity simply IS.

In this discussion about institutional responses to diversity, let me start by giving you three examples from the corporate, public and not for profit world.

Markham, Ontario is home to one of the most ethnically diverse communities in Canada with over 53% of the population being derived from immigrant communities. A local bank noting the typical height of residents in this community made the very wise business decision to lower the height of the bank counters. In another case, the Royal Bank of Canada decided to stop asking potential job applicants for place of education in the first screening process. This resulted in applicants from a myriad of educational institutions world wide progressing to the next screening phase. Each of these measures has in subtle ways changed the operating behaviour of the two banks in question.

The Boy Scouts of Canada, a venerable institution on the other hand has been rather late in waking up to the fact that the world changed while they were sleeping and or scouting (girls were only permitted to join in 1994). Once a powerful global movement, its membership today is in decline and the institution has begun to realize that if it does not adapt itself to appeal to youth of many cultures and many interests it will become less and less relevant. Its motto now is “Be Prepared For Diversity”.

One of my favourite institutions is the Toronto Public Library. It is also the most aggressive in reaching out to a diverse base, because as it says, if it does not do so, it runs the risk of becoming obsolescent. The library has extended the traditional concept of a library as a place to read and borrow books to a place where a multilingual audience can access interpreters, prepare for citizenship classes, receive help with employment and so forth. It is no wonder then that the Toronto Public Library enjoys the largest circulation of all libraries in North America and records more public visits than any other public library system in North America.

Each of these institutions is motivated by a common factor – the need to capture a customer base, the need to stay relevant in a changing world. Each has enjoyed different degrees of success.

The question of institutional responses to a growingly diverse constituency is an important one because institutions are the best mirrors of society, its beliefs and values, reflecting back to us who has voice and power, who is included, whose needs are taken into account, and who matters. Institutions are important because they express our ideas of social order and cooperation, making and enforcing rules and policies governing our behaviour.

However as society changes and evolves, so do institutions. Think for example of marriage as an institution and the changes it has gone through in the last two decades – or family, for that matter. At a certain time, some institutions may appear to be unchanging, but they are in fact a snapshot of our values and behaviours.

Institutions, particularly public institutions charged with ensuring and safeguarding public good are especially important in this discussion because they are the living expression of our commonly held values. The laws of our land, the constitution and the charter are possibly the best and highest example. Whether we as individuals like it or not, or whether certain institutions with their own expressions of encoded behaviour and values like it or not, we must all bend to this highest expression of our public will. Discrimination against women, gays and lesbians, racial minorities has not stopped because of the charter, but it has become much more difficult for institutions to openly practice such behaviors. Some of our more important charter challenges have served to clarify the interpretation of the charter in law.

At a more practical level, our hospitals, schools, libraries, universities are places where we live out many of these values and attached behaviors, and thus they become central in the discussion on social cohesion, a discussion which has become so much more important today given the many divides – rich/poor – urban/rural – minority/mainstream – eastern/western – national/transnational that we face. They define us, give us purpose, motivate us to action and reflect our collective choices (either good or bad). They have therefore a special responsibility to reflect the people and the thinking of the times.

This question of institutions and their response to diversity is also significant because it allows us to focus on ourselves as a society. In too many discussions, too much attention is paid to the deficits in minority communities, how we need to “fix” them and help them adapt, what services they need, how they should change to fit our way of doing things – and not enough attention is paid to the deficits in our society, in ourselves and in our institutions, that it is not just a one way street that will take us to nirvana, but a two way street.

But there are limits to the two way street. If there is one type of institution that occupies centre stage in the life of many Canadians, it is religion. Religion is all the more important because the reach of its value base extends far beyond its organized practice. Many religious institutions have their own sets of laws and rules of conduct which may bring them into direct conflict with the laws of the land or our constitution. Religion I think does not adapt well to – as Will Kymlicka described, the “culture of rights.” And “Fundamentalism” has found some expression in all of the major religions. I would be one of the first to say, that when religion and the law come in conflict, our law must be supreme. An important reason that newcomers – our diverse population – choose Canada is that it is a free and prosperous country. We need our shared institutions to reflect this.

Evaluating Shared Institutions

How well are our shared institutions doing? Based on the data, apparently remarkably well in excluding many Canadians, women, aboriginals, visible minorities and immigrants.

Let me frame my comments within a factual base

  • In 2001, immigrants comprised 18% of Canada’s population. The vast majority choose to live in Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto. Calgary is enjoying newfound popularity as well.
  • By 2017, 22 per cent of Canada’s population will be foreign-born, a level not seen since 1911-31.
  • 2017, visible minorities will form anywhere from 19- 23% of our population and will constitute majorities in the Toronto and Vancouver regions.
  • Unlike other nations, our diversity is and will continue to be truly global. The US is a story of two cultures – Blacks and Latinos; in Germany it is mostly Turks; in France it is mostly Arabs from the Magreb. Canada’s population is the most heterogeneous and truly multicultural.
  • Immigration will continue to be primarily a tale of three cities. In Toronto, South Asians alone will cross the 1-million mark, the biggest concentration of a visible minority group in any Canadian city. This would also make Toronto the biggest Western centre of that diaspora outside the Indian subcontinent. In Vancouver, Chinese will be the biggest visible minority (591,000), while in Montreal it will be blacks (200,000).
  • By 2017, for every 100 people who look like me and who are leaving the workforce, another 145 of me will be ready to take their place. For every 100 of people who look like, let’s say Michael Adams leaving the work force, only 75 will be available to enter the workforce
  • In addition, Canada’s aboriginal population is the only group enjoying a growth in birth rate. The number of young aboriginals in cities like Winnipeg is growing.

Aside from these demographic factors, we need to be aware of generational and intergenerational distinctions. Frank Graves of Ekos Research predicts a radical paradigm shift between the under 40s and the over 40s. Young Canada he finds is “unremittingly more diverse, more cosmopolitan and more internationalist – the new breed is colour blind, more anti war, less paranoid about terrorism and not terribly ideological. Its ethnic diversity imbues it with a different conception of the nation state, one less tied to the traditional French-English, two founding-nations concept of Canada.”

Political Institutions

Now that we know what the lay of the land is, let’s see how well our institutions have done in responding to diversity. Let’s start with our political institutions. When we look at the machinery of our parties and elected officials, we seem to have a “stop and lurch” kind of scenario.

  • “The representation of women in the House of Commons has reached a plateau with only 64 (of 308 spots) women sitting as Members of Parliaments. The figures are not much different for provincial and local governments – hovering around the 20% mark. With all the noise that our political leaders tend to make about the participation of women in electoral life, the results are very discouraging. In 2006 federal election the highest proportion of women is found in the New Democratic Party, where women constitute 36 per cent of the nominated candidates. Thirty one per cent of Bloc Québécois candidates are women. Despite Martin’s past enthusiasm, only 26 per cent of the Liberal candidates are women. Among Conservatives, just 11 per cent of the candidates are women.”
  • In the most recent 2006 general election, 24 visible-minority candidates were elected to the 308-seat House of Commons. The overwhelming majority of these suburban representatives are of South Asian descent.” In the City of Toronto, the last election left us with 4 of 43 city councilors who were minorities, down from 6.
  • Voter turn out is low – at the federal level it hovers around 60%. At other levels it can be lower. A look at selected communities from across the country tells us that only 31.7% voted at the municipal level in elections held between 2000 and 2002.
  • Neighbourhoods in Toronto with high numbers of immigrants are much less likely than other neighbourhoods to vote in both municipal and provincial elections. The voice of newcomers and minorities – and therefore the voice of Toronto – is muted in the critical realm of [government] decision-making

In order to reinvigorate our political institutions with new voices, new blood, new ideas and new levels of participation we need to consider new ways of doing business. Three ideas are:

1) Proportional representation for all its merits and demerits, would have a positive impact on enabling a diversity of opinion and representation to emerge. This fall Ontarians will get to vote on whether the want a mixed member proportional system. If this system is adopted, we would be able to clearly see who is on the list and who isn’t – in other words, how well our parties are doing in including Canada’s diversity.

2) Changing the eligibility criteria for who votes in local elections would have the same impact. Extending the municipal franchise to landed immigrants would bring another 263,000 voters in Toronto into the tent. It would enable us to get their civic attachment earlier. It would also make local government more accountable to residents that are directly affected by municipal services such as garbage pick up and policing.

3) We need to encourage a range of minority communities to take a more active part in electoral politics. For example standing for election or working in a campaign. We at Maytree are so concerned about the absence of new faces and voices that we have recently launched a “School for Civics” where we hope to train a new generation of activists on how to run for public office and get elected..

Public Institutions

I have proposed some ideas for improving our political institutions – let’s move on to our public institutions.

Let’s consider our agencies board and commissions. These organizations have an enormous impact on the everyday life of Canadians as they help to run essential services at all levels. But how representative are they of Canada’s diversity? The answer is they are not. Often appointments are made through the networks of existing board members – and these networks don’t include Canada’s new citizens.

In the spirit of practical tangible solutions, the Foundation launched an initiative two years ago to “green” public agencies, boards and commissions with a candidate source list of qualified prescreened minority candidates for appointments in our regions agencies, boards and commissions. We act as match makers, as head hunters, as capacity builders. We have made over 100 of appointments to various agencies, boards and commissions – for example to provincial agencies such as the LCBO the Ontario Science Centre, to Seneca College; to municipal agencies such as the Board of Health or the Library and to community agencies such as Dixon Hall. These appointments are important because the work of such agencies permeates almost every aspect of our daily life. We have also gathered and published a set of promising practices that enable agencies boards and commissions leverage to diversity without falling victim, accidentally or deliberately to tokenism. This is a small effort gaining in prominence – our effort to help institutions get beyond their own circles to new people and new ways of thinking. In one way we are extending the notions of the old boys club to create a new boys and girls club by extending and bridging existing networks with new networks and creating new social capital.

Now lets turn to our public schools–arguably our most important public institutions. Public Schools are particularly significant in knitting together a cohesive society by transmitting values and behaviors, both to the children and to their parents at home. The current debate in Ontario, which is going to heighten in the October elections, about the extension of public funding to religious schools, from this perspective cannot be a good thing. There are those we would argue for an end to the Catholic School board as an alternative…even if it is politically somewhat undoable. At this point 53,000 students are enrolled in Ontario religious schools and if all these schools opted for a share of public financing it could cost us close to $ 400 – 500 million a year – money that would be taken from the public school system. Two options: Extend funding to all religious schools or revoke funding to Catholic Schools. There is a third option – let sleeping dogs lie.

As for universities and colleges – these more than any other institutions, represent the greatest attraction to a diverse first or second generation population. There is no doubt that access to these institutions is not an issue for certain communities – the campuses at McMaster, University of Toronto and Ryerson have many South Asian, Chinese and Iranian students.

However, colleges and universities still have a long way to go to making themselves relevant to the academic learning needs of a first generation immigrants – who do not necessarily need a full course of studies or another full degree, but some of this and some of that to prepare them for entry into the work force and here I am not talking about continuing education programs. To give you one example, the Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto has developed an excellent program with a high success rate (close to 93%) of enabling foreign trained pharmacists to gain their pharmacy license and practice in a demand occupation. This is good. But the price tag for individuals is high at roughly $13,500 for one year of training. Provincial governments need to help universities and colleges to go the next 100 miles by helping newcomers access Ontario student loans. Right now, OSAP is only available to full-time students in degree or diploma programs. Many of these bridging programs – while incredibly helpful in getting skilled newcomers in work commensurate with their training just don’t qualify.

Private Sector Institutions

The private sector, like the public sector is large and complex. But let’s consider how some of the larger companies are doing. In the private sector according to the Spencer Stuart Canadian Board Index 2005, women occupy 12.4% of board seats on Canada’s largest 100 publicly held companies. Only 44% of these boards have at least one minority director.

Going a little deeper, a recent Catalyst survey found that visible minority employees of Canada’s top employers are less engaged, feels less valued and do not believe that they have the same opportunities for career progress as their counterparts. They are also more likely than their white colleagues to feel that who you know, is more important than what you know. In other words – the old boys club is alive and well, and some visible minorities feel left out. But action on this front is possible too. One practical example is the Toronto City Summit Alliance is considering launching a Leadership Network that would mix and mingle leaders from immigrant and ethnic communities with the Old Boys Club.

New Institutions

I also want to allude to new institutions that we have created as a response to demands created by diversity. In the past three decades, there has been a significant increase in the creation of organizations, primarily not for profit, serving the many settlement needs of newcomer communities. It has been through these settlement organizations – many of which are ethnic specific that government has provided services to newcomers. Although they are often under funded, because of the services they provide, these institutions have gained legitimacy and a fair amount of political clout. I am not disputing their legitimacy or the need for the services they provide to many newcomers. There is however one unhealthy unintended outcome – we have created a silo industry, and by expecting these institutions to do the heavy lifting of settlement and integration, we let the rest of society off the hook. If we build diversity and the diversity lens into all our public institutions, then we will not need separate institutions serving diverse communities.

Fresh Institutional Behaviour

Finally, I want to close with some lessons from the new technological tools that are springing up around us almost in a daily fashion.

Who could have thought of the power of the web 20 years ago, or the power of You Tube or My Space today. Remember what I said about the generational divide? Some of the chief characteristics of these new methods of communication, taken up by so many of our young people, can tell us something about how our institutions should adapt for tomorrows diverse generation.

Let me tell you a bit about two of these new technologies.

First Wikipedia. This is an online encyclopedia that anyone can contribute to. You can find information on virtually any subject – it isn’t peer reviewed or edited. Instead, anyone can create an account and edit the material. It is written collaboratively, it is edited by anyone – and as far as I can tell, surprisingly accurate.

Second Facebook. Facebook is a website that allows people to create a profile of themselves that shares their interests, their photos and their websites. It allows people to join networks based on geographic location, and groups based on interest. They can create event invitations, and everyone invited can see the RSVPs. Facebook’s uses will only grow, now that it has become a platform for which anyone can create applications.

What do these new tools tell us about what young people want? And what does this mean for institutions?

Characteristics of New Tools

  • Flexible – can mean more than one thing to more than one person (for some, Facebook is a way to catch up with old friends, for others a way to share pictures, for others still a way to meet new people since you can search for “friends” on networks by criteria)
  • Quick – provide information instantly – e.g., Wikipedia – anyone can update this encyclopedia right away, making it timely
  • Adaptable – new institutions change to adapt to society – e.g., Facebook is now a platform where techies can create new uses for it – like sharing videos, drawing, horoscopes
  • Transparent – it’s not that people don’t care about privacy, but thanks to the internet there is a new sense that information and institutions should be open to everyone who wants to know e.g., Facebook – people use their first and last names, their contact information, and post pictures of themselves, although some do make restrictions about who can see this information
  • Vertical not hierarchical – question the expert – e.g., wiki allows everyone to add material)
  • Imperfect – there is some acceptance of imperfection, because accepted that people will be critical of information presented (e.g., Wikipedia – encourages visitors to be critical of information presented)
  • Representative and open – Anyone can join


So in closing, I wonder how well the institution that we are all a guest of today, Couch, as it is affectionately known, measures up to these indicators.

Is it flexible? Is it quick? Is it adaptable, or transparent, is it vertical or is it governance heavy, does it tolerate imperfection? Does it see immigrants and minorities as an asset to invest in or a problem to manage? Does it want to engage with issues of diversity with energy and vision, or does it do so slowly and reluctantly?

I guess my bias is clear – I think institutions should be eager to change, at the very least to follow the letter of the law of the land, and at the very most to hopefully fully embrace its sprit. For Couch I wish the latter.

Thank you very much.