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

Are Canadian Institutions Adapting to Diversity?

RATNA OMIDVAR (bio), Executive Director, The Maytree Foundation (Presentation)
MARIE McANDREW (bio), Faculty of Education, University of Montreal (Presentation PDF)
BOB WATTS (bio), Interim Executive Director for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Moderator: CETA RAMKALAWANSINGH, CIPA Program Committe

Summary by Jung-Suk Ryu

Ratna Omidvar opened her remarks by introducing the main concept behind the Maytree Foundation – it views diversity in a practical manner, where individuals and groups do not argue the strengths or weaknesses of diversity, but view it as a practical expression with barriers that need to be broken down.

Ms. Omidvar gave three visible examples of institutional responses to diversity. For example, a bank in the ethnically-diverse city of Markham, Ontario, revamped their counters to meet the lower height measurements of its South Asian clientele. On the other hand, not-for-profit organizations like the Boy Scouts of Canada have been slow in waking up to the fact that the world has changed around them. The bottom line, according to Ms. Omidvar, is for institutions and organizations to capture their customer base and change according to their needs.

Ms. Omidvar pointed out that discrimination against minority groups has not stopped because of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but it is certainly harder for institutions to discriminate.

Furthermore, institutions involved with politics, agencies, sports, and commissions should also respond to the diversity in Canada. For example, in the 2006 federal election, only 24 members of a visible minority were elected to the House of Commons. On all levels of government, the voice of visible minority communities is often muted due to a lack of participation, and communities-at-large need to work together to recreate rules and restrictions. For example, there is a current proposal that would allow landed immigrants the right to vote in municipal elections – this would encourage minority groups to participate in civic life.

Marie McAndrew opened her remarks by stating that, at best, multiculturalism is often treated as an “add-on” to society. She said that it was paradoxical that, at the same time, there is a growing sense that we have gone too far to adapt to religious and cultural diversity (i.e., the wearing of hijabs in schools). This is often perpetuated by politicians and members of the media.

According to Dr. McAndrew, there is a discussion between two main concepts – one, whether or not visible accommodation is troublesome, and two, the degree of accommodation and its compatibility with an institution’s mandate. (For example, the fasting of young students during Ramadan, and the concerns of educators and administrators.)

Dr. McAndrew pointed towards several controversies that are born out of a misunderstanding of shared citizenship – even further, these controversies may be fuelled by a lack of an “inclusive language.” She said that we need to compare and consider the various sets of values, and not compare all of them to one single “fundamental value.”

Bob Watts answered the question of today’s discussion – Are Canadian Institutions Adapting to Diversity? – with a resounding “no,” but stated that there was hope.

Mr. Watts used various examples of the mistreatment of indigenous tribes in Canada as a way to highlight his answer. For example, during the court case of the Nishgaa tribe versus Premier Gordon Campbell, the Premier argued that the treaty was not a valid treaty, while the tribe was frustrated because the powers of Canada were not fairly distributed, especially since no indigenous tribes played a key role in the formation of Confederation. This is obviously against the main purpose of Confederation – to reconcile diversity with unity and using federalism as a mechanism to reconcile.

“For a group of people that is often too visible, our history and our existence are often invisible.” Mr. Watts believes that sovereignty matters; that is, the transferring of power from non-tribal decision-makers. Furthermore, stable institutions and policies are critical for the development of and reconciliation with tribes.

Mr. Watts, by using the residential schools issue as a key example, stated that reconciliation is not a transferring of guilt, but the asking of a question – how do we share the future? Reconciliation is something that happens between individuals, families, and communities, and not just figureheads.

Highlights – Questions

Should the federal government put a moratorium on bilingualism requirements to join the public service?

You could achieve a “reasonable accommodation,” not a moratorium for language requirements in the federal public service – perhaps based on location.

Should we use the term “visible minority,” when in urban areas like Toronto and Vancouver, the visible minority is becoming a majority?

What can we learn from the native/aboriginal peoples as new immigrants?