With Ottawa gearing up for Canada’s sesquicentennial celebrations this weekend, I am reminded of what it was like to come to Canada as an immigrant.
In 1955, I was 11 years old. I had grown up in a small town in Friuli, in northeastern Italy. My father had come to Canada in search of work, and once he was established he sent for my mother, my sister, and me. We undertook the long journey by boat, and arrived (like many others) at Halifax’s Pier 21 before taking the train to see my father in Ottawa.
Today, being Italian might seem culturally mainstream in Canada, but in the 1950s we were still an emerging ethnic group. When we arrived, none of my family spoke English, and the climate, food, and people were strange to us.
Canadians, however, welcomed us wholeheartedly. In the years after our arrival, I adapted quickly (as children do) to life in Canada. At the same time, my Italian culture was appreciated and encouraged. I didn’t have to give up my ethnic identity to be a Canadian. Instead, Italians added to the richness of Canadian culture — from opera and soccer to “pizza night”!
Today, as I see a greater diversity of new Canadians, I wish to extend to them the same welcome I received, more than 60 years ago. That’s the Canadian way. We aren’t just “tolerant” of differences among us, we are inclusive. All are welcome to add the best aspects of their cultures to our wonderful mosaic.
Canada’s diversity also helps us be respected by a changing world. For example, our Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan, who is a Sikh immigrant from India, has told reporters that his anti-terrorism intelligence work in Afghanistan was aided by the fact that he represented a country that supported him wearing a turban as part of his military uniform. It showed that Canada was not xenophobic, and local contacts were more open to him because of that.
Indeed, the Canadian Armed Forces are making a concerted effort to increase diversity in their ranks, to attract more culturally diverse Canadians as well as more women and people of different sexual orientations. When we worked on the CAF recruitment advertising file a few years ago, one of our key research insights was that prospects need to see themselves represented in uniform to feel more comfortable enlisting. This creates a virtuous cycle through which an active focus on more diversity now naturally leads to a sustainably diverse workforce over the long term.
As a business owner, I have also seen how cultural diversity makes for a stronger workplace. Different perspectives and experiences result in innovation and agility. Canada’s welcoming environment attracts the best talent from all over the world, and our friendly nature can nurture a brain gain in all sectors.
As some other governments pursue more isolationist policies, I am proud that Canada is not going down that road. Our welcoming nature continues to make immigrants and refugees feel safe and included among us. This isn’t just good for them, but good for us all, as together we build the trust and communication necessary to their positive integration into our pluralistic society.
This Canada Day, celebrate diversity. Make newcomers feel welcomed. And be thankful that we live in a country of such cultural riches.
Feature image: David Poultney, The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, https://www.flickr.com/photos/thedcms/7741413330/