Last Wednesday, March 14th, the UTM political science department hosted a lecture titled “Diversity 2018 and Beyond: Five Big Ideas on Diversity and Inclusion” as part of its third annual public affairs lecture. This lecture invited senator Ratna Omidvar to share her personal story and how it influenced her work on diversity and inclusion as a lawmaker in Canada. Senator Omidvar is an internationally recognized voice on migration, diversity, and inclusion. In April 2016, she was appointed to the senate by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, where she sits as a member of the Independent Senators Group.
“[The UTM political science department] would like to thank the UTM dean’s office, which funds the series through its Priorities Fund,” began Dr. Erin Trolley, the lecture’s moderator and an assistant professor of political science at UTM. “And of course, we’re grateful to senator Ratna Omidvar for agreeing to share her insights with us.” Professor Trolley followed this with land acknowledgment, stating her gratefulness to have the opportunity to work on this Indigenous land.
“Senator Omidvar came to Canada in 1981 and her experiences of displacement, integration, and physical movement have been a foundation of her work,” Trolley said. “She is a founding executive director and currently a distinguished visiting professor at the Global Diversity Exchange, which is housed at the Ted Rogers School of Management, at Ryerson University—we won’t hold that against her,” the professor added, amidst chuckles from the audience.
The senator began by saying, “Before I talk about these ideas, I want to talk about myself, just because my story is the foundation of how I think and how I come at things.” She continued, “I also want to share my story because I believe it is not a unique story. It is a story that has been shared by millions before and by millions to come.”
“As you can probably guess, I was born in India to a middle-class family. When I was 20-to-21 years old, I decided to leave home—and I hope lots of you decide to leave home, not because home is a bad place,” she rushed to explain, “[But] because adventure is a good place.”
“I decided to go and learn German. One weekend, like many other students in Bavaria, I packed my knapsack […] and I went up the Alps on a hike, and when I came down, I knew I had met my life partner who had climbed the Alps with me.” She elaborated, “He was from Iran, and when we both finished our studies, we decided to go live in Iran.”
The senator spoke of living through the Iranian Revolution that replaced the previously oppressive regime.
With the regime being replaced with a theocracy rather than the democracy her family hoped for, they eventually decided to flee through the Iran-Turkey land border.
“The border itself is represented by a big room […], we are on one side of the room. This side of the room had a picture of [Ruhollah] Khomeini on it, and the other side, which was the side we want to get on, has a picture of [Mustafa Kemal] Atatürk on it.”
“Me and my family, we were petrified […] and I remember saying to myself, wishing for God to get us over to the other side and I made a promise, ‘If you get me over to the side, I will never ask you for anything again,’” senator Omidvar recalled. “I have broken that promise many times, over and over again, because I am human, after all.”
She continued, “When things go bad in life, as they tend to, then I try and remember that moment where I almost lost everything.”
The senator and her family applied for immigration to Germany, and after not being accepted, Canada accepted them “after some hiccups.”
“We arrived in Canada in June. I remember June 6th very clearly. It was a bright sunny day, and I thought that was going to be the metaphor for my new life,” senator Omidvar shared, “As you will have heard, the promise of Canada is there. It is within your grasp but it is not immediate.”
“I remember very clearly the first moment that I felt that I belonged. I don’t think [belonging] has anything to do with a passport. To me, having a passport is wonderful, but it really doesn’t define how you engage,” the senator explained.
“It was a Saturday morning, and my 6-year-old or 8-year-old was part of a rhythmic gymnastics club, and we sat in someone’s kitchen and made this awful Canadian culinary confection called peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” said senator Omidwar, “And peanut butter and jelly sticks to you. But that habit of engaging in common cause with people like me and unlike me has stuck with me.”
“I want to get to five ideas […] and these are not big ideas, these are good ideas and I think good ideas can be made better through discussion,” emphasized senator Omidvar.
“My first reflection is that around contribution. I believe, very firmly, that contribution matters,” she voiced, “I know of this group of people who worked in a low-income neighbourhood in Toronto. They worked together on making sure that there was a bench where mothers and senior citizens could sit on while they waited for the bus. That bench, for me, represents a pathway to contribution and these pathways are not big—you have to make sure you’re engaged locally [today]. We’re seeing engagement of a different kind today [like] the #MeToo movement […] there are so many movements I can’t keep track of them.”
She also added, “I think there is something in the air that should give you a great deal of encouragement about raising your voice on issues that matter to you.”
“My second idea is around language and the power of language,” said senator Omidwar. “A word here, or a comma there, a semi-colon there can change the interpretation of everything, including the law. The language we use, specifically the definitions we use, to label ideas or people are very, very powerful, and these labels have evolved over time. The language we use reflects our cultural norms and our biases.”
“In my own work, I have worked with a wonderful group of wonderful people to change, slowly but surely and successfully the terminology around ‘foreign-trained’ to ‘internationally-trained.’ Just think about how that shifts your ideas when you say, ‘That person is foreign-trained’ versus ‘That person is internationally trained,’” the senator mused.
“Recently, in the senate, we change one word in the national anthem which was ‘sons command,’ we took out the word ‘sons’ and replaced it with the word ‘us’. We also changed, recently, the title of an act called Barbaric Cultural Practices Act. We simply took away the title and left the substance of the legislation.” She continued, “The argument was made in senate that people are barbaric, but cultures not so much.”
“My third idea is around the law. I, as a senator, spend 95 per cent of my time dealing with legislation and I understand and appreciate more than ever the power of the law and its impact,” the senator shared. She elaborated that she was tasked with reversing the citizenship rules put in place by the Harper government that made citizenship harder to gain and easier to lose, and was hurt by the divisive discourse surrounding this issue, especially when it came to dual citizens. “It does not make constitutional sense to treat two citizens differently,” the senator claimed.
Senator Omidvar also shared her experience with trying to introduce legislation that would require corporate boards to either implement a diversity policy or explain why they didn’t need to implement it. Despite being met with rejection, her proposal led to a proper definition of ‘diversity’ in the law.
“All the research has found that when you leave ‘diversity’ undefined, people will want to define it as diversity of age, diversity of experience, diversity of region, diversity of education. Whereas what the government is trying to do is get more women, more minorities, more Aboriginals,” the senator explained, “I am a huge believer in small steps going forward, even if that means sometimes it’s two forward, one backward.”
“I am surprised at how much we forget our own history. History matters. If you want to go into the future, you need to know where you came from,” said the senator, arriving at her fourth point. “The history of building Canada, in some significant way, has been built by immigration.” She further discussed this by recounting how Canada was initially settled by giving land grants to cold-weather farmers, and how our current search for ‘designer immigrants’ was at our own peril. “You give me a refugee who comes with nothing. Their loyalty to this country will be unquestioned because we gave them a shot at life,” said Omidvar.
As she continued to say, “Our challenge in Canada, is not why we should make diversity work, but how,” and “My final idea is that it’s not always about what the immigrant does—it’s a great deal about what the host society does and in particular what institutions do.” The senator further highlighted what she called the wonderfulness of being able to listen to a variety of languages at any time in Toronto—of allowing the Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers to wear turbans, and of listening to hockey night in Punjabi.