As Canadians, no one sentence has become more nationally ingrained than, “Diversity is our strength.” We’ve heard Prime Minister Justin Trudeau champion the phrase both off and online. It’s the City of Toronto’s motto. If you want, you can wear it on a shirt. But whether this sentiment adequately reflects the reality of inclusion in Canada, and more specifically, Toronto, is a question that many marginalized groups and their allies would likely answer in the negative. As such, the Toronto-based NGO CivicAction’s recent ELNStudio 3D set out to ask: how can we live up to these words in practice – especially in our cities?
On November 3rd, I attended ELNStudio 3D: Discovering, Decoding and Driving the Future of an Inclusive GTHA. Held by CivicAction’s Emerging Leaders Network, the conference brought young and rising leaders together to consider the role of inclusion and diversity in three key city-building issues: affordable housing, economic opportunity, and the collection of sharing of information. Though many voices were heard and several ideas exchanged, the speakers conveyed one central message: if diversity is really going to be Canada’s strength, emerging leaders will need to turn the conversation outward. We need to foster a dialogue of inclusion beyond the convention centre walls and outside of the progressive echo chamber.
This theme of diversity in action was quickly set by Tim Hockey, Board Chair of CivicAction’s Leadership Foundation, in his opening remarks to the conference: “the people in this room have already drank the Kool-Aid.” He was right – the room was filled with eager young leaders passionate about diversity in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). Despite this shared understanding and enthusiasm, a culture of exclusion remains deeply ingrained in Toronto’s fabric. As Carolyn King, Former Chief of the Mississauga’s of the New Credit First Nation, noted in her poignant land acknowledgement, Indigenous peoples are facing a different 3D acronym: “disrespected, discarded, and dismissed.” And as Olivia Nuamah, Executive Director of Pride Toronto, stated during the ‘Road to Inclusion’ plenary panel, the fact that marginalized groups need to be ‘included’ is the problem itself. Her words stuck with me the rest of the day: “I don’t want to be included in something. I already want to be there.”
Given these discrepancies, the plenary discussion focused on exposing some of the barriers to true inclusion and diversity in the GTHA and Canada. To panelist Anna Klimbovskaia, Director of Research at RBC, the pervasiveness of ‘Canadian exceptionalism’ is one of the biggest barriers to progress. Given our national identity as progressive and diverse – relative to the rest of the world, at least – Canadians fall complacent in their need to interrogate their commitment to the equality of minority groups. Panelist Michael Bach suggested that another barrier to inclusiveness was the unwillingness of people in positions of power to “become more comfortable with the uncomfortable” by interrogating their own biases against marginalized groups.
As the day progressed, the event was split into three categories: affordable housing, economic opportunity, and the collection and sharing of information. Participants were asked to join the panel of their interest. In honor of the PPGR, I chose to attend, “Whose Story is it Anyway? Decoding the Collection of Sharing of Information,” paneled by experts in the field such as the Globe and Mail’s Denise Balkisoon and Open Data Institute Toronto head Bianca Wylie. Moderator Justin Wiebe began the discussion by reminding listeners that how information is shared is strongly connected to how issues are popularly understood. The panel warned of one overarching, media-specific barrier to progress: since data can be biased in its collection and analysis, who determines which data the populace is looking at has a disproportionately large say in how issues of inclusion and diversity are considered. This power tends to fall in the hands of existing media structures and politicians, two groups that have a less than stellar track record in the realm of diversity and inclusion. As such, panelists encouraged listeners to appeal to those in power to make a change.
How can emerging leaders break these and other barriers to progress? ELNStudio 3D made clear that by the nature of these obstacles, we can’t do it alone. Rather, the conference stressed that the largest challenge facing those passionate about diversity and inclusion is the need to win the hearts and minds of those who aren’t on board yet. Most panelists argued that the easiest approach to this problem is to appeal to market sense. In other words, inclusion may have to be incentivized by appealing to statistics such as those that show how increases in workplace diversity lead to higher levels of productivity. This applies to the information sector as well; for example, Balkisoon pointed to the use of media analytics to demonstrate the large existing market for stories of race, sexuality, and positivity.
Whether such tactics will work is yet to be determined. However, if anyone is up to the challenge, it’s the emerging leaders of today. As CivicAction CEO Sevaun Palvetzian told me, she’s never before seen a generation so intent on having a positive impact, nor one that has had such an ability to do so: “the stakes are high, the opportunity is wide, and the ability to plug in has never been better.” Let’s hope we can prove her right, and in the process, also prove that diversity really is our strength.
Katerina Stamadianos is a first year MPP Candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a HBA of Arts from the University of Toronto, where she studied International Relations and Ethics, Society, and Law. Her policy interests include urban, health, and social issues.