By David Lindsay
On Tuesday, Ontario’s universities gathered a wide range of government, community, business and academic leaders to discuss the importance of diversity for Ontario’s future, and how the province can work together to create a better future for all Ontarians.
The Honourable Ratna Omidvar, Independent Senator for Ontario and founding Executive Director at the Global Diversity Exchange, hosted and led the discussion with a challenge to everyone around the table to broaden their thinking about diversity, and to think about what we are trying to achieve by discussing the topic.
Participants emphasized that diversity is one of Ontario’s strengths as it works to build a better future. “If we are going to be a more prosperous Ontario for Ontarians,” said Carol Wilding, President and CEO of Chartered Professional Accountants Ontario, “then this is a fundamental building block in order to make that happen.”
Matthew Fortier, Vice-President of Policy at the Institute of Corporate Directors, agreed that embracing diversity is essential to the growth of Ontario’s businesses and economy. “If you have the same people having the same issues over and over again, you’re not going to get innovation.”
The discussion echoed what leaders like Stephen Poloz, Governor of the Bank of Canada, have been stressing: that Canada flourishes when it is open to diversity and immigration. Ontarians are rightly proud of our rich diversity, but the question emerged of how we can make better use of the talents and contributions of all Ontarians to create a stronger province.
A sense of urgency was expressed, fuelled in part by the latest snapshot of demographic changes emerging from new Census data. According to Statistics Canada, Canada’s population grew by five per cent to 35.2 million in 2016, the strongest growth of all G7 countries. That growth, on which the labour force and therefore our economy is so dependent, is fuelled by immigration. By 2031, Statistics Canada projects that the country’s foreign-born population will rise by as much as 28 per cent, four times faster than the rest of the population, and about one-third of Canada’s population will be a visible minority.
Sam Erry, Ontario’s Associate Deputy Minister for Inclusion, Diversity and Anti-Racism, reminded us of the significant growth in Canada’s Aboriginal population, and the need to engage Aboriginal youth. ”They are the youngest, fastest growing population in Ontario. Where is the plan? The rest of us are going to get older…but where is the plan for the youngest, fastest growing population?” he asked.
A recent report by the National Aboriginal Economic Development Board found a huge economic gap exists between Canada’s Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal population in terms of income, education and training. Canada’s economy is missing out on $27.7 billion a year because of its “under-utilized” workforce, the group said, calling for more education for the Aboriginal population.
Willa Black, Vice-President of Corporate Affairs at Cisco, told the group her experience working with Aboriginal high school students transitioning to postsecondary education highlights how “so much is needed in terms of not only preparing the students, but working at the institutions to create environments that are more empathetic.”
Around the table, there was agreement that if we care about diversity we must also focus on principles of inclusion and belonging.
Alexander Bezzina, Deputy Minister for Ontario’s Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration, argued that when we think about diversity, “we have to think about this question from the perspective of the personal experiences.” We have to ensure Ontarians from different communities all feel like they belong and can participate in their societies, he told the group.
Andrea Nemtin, President & CEO of the Inspirit Foundation, said that fostering inclusion and belonging means ensuring “everyone has the equal opportunity to participate in, and benefit from, the social, economic and political systems of our society.”
Nemtin added that personal experiences don’t always reflect the systemic and institutional barriers at play. “You can have a good interpersonal experience, which can make you feel like you belong, but that doesn’t mean the culture that you are working in is actually fair and equitable, or that the institutions and the systems are actually fair and equitable.”
As participants reflected on ways Ontario can confront these deeper issues, university representatives at the roundtable heard about a number of ways they can be vital partners in creating a diverse and inclusive future. What they heard was that they can ensure universities not only support diversity but are a launching pad for a new generation of diverse leaders, researchers, innovators, entrepreneurs, politicians and engineers.
Senator Omidvar noted that university researchers have the knowledge and expertise to push forward our collective thinking on diversity and inclusivity. “If Ontario universities are going to take the lead on this,” she said, “then part and parcel of their foundation has to be thought leadership and research on what is diversity, how is it experienced and expressed.”
Margaret Eaton, Executive Director of the Toronto Region of Immigrant Employment Council, said “universities can play a true leadership role” by engaging with their communities and inspiring conversations about the benefits of diversity.
A number of people pointed to the importance of collecting data to assess initiatives and programs from a diversity perspective.
And Senator Omidvar issued an overarching call: “The best thing universities can do is to focus on the successful experience, so that students are able to participate culturally, socially and economically, not just in university life, but in post-university life.”
Doing so, she emphasized, will help ensure that we create an Ontario where we can all prosper together.
We would love to hear more from you about how to create a diverse and inclusive future for Ontario. You can fill out our survey on diversity and inclusion, or our survey on the future of Ontario broadly. You can also write us at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow us on Twitter and Facebook. Together we can help ensure all Ontarians thrive in tomorrow’s world.
President and CEO
Council of Ontario Universities