On May 6, the Maytree Foundation held their 2008 Annual Leadership Conference, with the theme of belonging and its impact on individual and community wellbeing. Citizens for Public Justice joined with leaders from various sectors to discuss issues of identity, citizenship, multiculturalism and reflect on ways to enable marginalized groups to fully participate in society.
The opening keynote address brought together a philosopher, a pollster and a practitioner to explore the complex question of “belonging” in a diverse society and the reality of multiculturalism in Canada. Facilitated by Dr. Chaviva Hosek, a researcher and past director of Policy and Research for Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, the speakers gave their unique perspectives and experiences on the success and challenges of forging an identity in a multicultural society.
Dr. Will Kymlicka, political theorist and renowned author on multiculturalism, gave an overview of the distinctive diversity policy in the Canadian context. According to Kymlicka, we have a constitutional commitment to multiculturalism, and diversity is part of Canadian narrative. Multiculturalism policy has both public and political support and has challenged hierarchies along ethnic and racial lines. Noted social commentator and pollster Michael Adams gave insights into multicultural policy as it aims to integrate, not assimilate. Adams also recognized the challenges for multiculturalism to fight discrimination among minorities and bring social cohesion in society.
The dark side of diversity was brought forward by Uzma Shakir, a researcher and activist for the rights of refugees and immigrants, who showed the lack of power and growing inequality for Aboriginal peoples and other racial minorities. The problems of diversity emerge with the racialization of poverty among oppressed minorities. Multiculturalism alone cannot restructure the power struggle; it needs to work in conjunction with other policies to bring equality and to realize rights for those who are marginalized.
The morning keynote address was followed by various workshops to engage participants on prominent social issues. In one of the workshops, “Land Use and Transportation: A Question of Equity,” panelists discussed options to ensure that land use and infrastructure planning are used in a just and equitable way to serve those in need. Access to services such as affordable housing and sustainable transportation need to be equally developed in low income neighborhoods.
In “Good Jobs – The Pathway from Poverty?” panellists shared the ways in which they are working to ensure that more jobs are good jobs. Currently, 1 in 3 jobs in Canada are precarious; that is, they are temporary, contract or self-employed, with no stability, limited or no benefits and very low wages. Such jobs contribute to poverty in Canada, due to their failure to pay a living wage. The workshop provided an engaging dialogue on how governments, unions and community groups can all contribute to ensuring that no Canadian, including those who recently arrived, needs to work in a job that undermines their dignity as a person.
The workshop “Beyond Bureaucracy: Humanizing the Refugee and Asylum System” allowed participants and panelists to explore the moral, ethical and legal issues bound up in the refugee system and discuss concrete proposals for its reform, such as reducing backlogs and recognizing cultural differences. The frank and open dialogue shone light on the challenges faced by the Immigration and Refugee Board, lawyers, and most importantly, refugees.
After an afternoon of engaging dialogue on multiculturalism and various social issues presented in the workshops, the conference closed with a keynote address on wellbeing indicators. Dr. John Helliwell, a renowned economist and co-director of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research’s program on Social Interactions, Identity and Well-being, showed that a sense of belonging is a key factor in individual wellbeing and happiness, even ahead of wealth and personal status. According to Helliwell, life satisfaction comes from engagement and advocacy by building relationships and doing things with others. Evidently, it is not power that brings about happiness and wellbeing, but it is helping each other and building trust that increase life satisfaction.
Dr. Kwame McKenzie, a policy advisor and leading mental health researcher, emphasized the responsibility of government and its partners to improve the wellbeing of communities in need. At the end of the day, we are challenged to think deeply about the complex issues of identity, multiculturalism and what it means to “belong” in Canadian society.