Winnie recently took part in a public forum that wrapped up the Province newspaper's month-long coverage, Racism in Paradise.

By Winnie Hwo Public Engagement Specialist

As I enter my fourth year at the David Suzuki Foundation, I often find myself being invited to participate in dialogues about Canada's cultural and ethnic diversity.

I recently took part in a public forum hosted by the Laurier Institution to wrap up the Province newspaper's month-long coverage, Racism in Paradise. Last year, I participated in CBC Radio's "ethnic enclaves" feature, hosted by Stephen Quinn. A year before that, I was invited by Philanthropist magazine in Ottawa to write a feature piece on public engagement with ethnic Canadians.

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As a former journalist for a Chinese-language broadcaster in Canada, it is easy to understand why I would be invited to share my thoughts on the complex and sometimes heated subject of diversity in Canada. However, my friends sometimes ask, "What's the connection between ethnic diversity and my current work in environmental campaigning?"

The simple answer is: everything!

During the lively debate at the Laurier Institution's public forum, David Suzuki, who joined the two-hour discussion at UBC's Robson Square Campus, shared with the 80-plus live audience that as a geneticist, he learned early on human and animal DNA are genetically diverse. But it is the duo-diversity of genetics and culture that facilitated the resilience of human life. In other words, diversity has not only enabled human survival, it has also enriched our lives.

In Canada, we call it multiculturalism. For the most part, we celebrate our diversity by showing off this increasingly important component of our Canadian characteristic. The fact that we are a cultural mosaic instead of the melting pot embraced by our neighbours to the south is supposed to be a source of national pride. Canadians have also seen how multiculturalism is often used as a tool by our elected officials and business leaders to promote trading opportunities with non-traditional markets, mostly in Asia.

However, during opening speeches at the recent diversity dialogue, it was apparent that our "national pride", multiculturalism, still needs to gain support from some Canadians. An irate participant heckled Snuneymuxw First Nation Chief Douglas White III Kwulasultun during his thoughtful opening speech. The same person tried to lunge at me after I reminded immigrants to respect Canada's official languages and said that if they want to make changes to our existing laws, they can only do that through the democratic process. That left little doubt in my mind that when it comes to diversity and nation-building, we still have a lot of work to do.

A young colleague from our Science and Policy team told me shortly after hearing about my experience that he wasn't surprised by the raw reaction and angry push-back against Canadian diversity from a handful of participants at the forum. In his view, this speaks to our reluctance to adapt to and embrace change. The apparent parallel between Canadians who struggle with the nation's growing ethnic diversity and those who continue to deny the mounting evidence of climate change science should not be ignored.

If there is a sliver of hope in all of this, it might be that, statistically, deniers in both camps are in the minority. Last year, Insightrix Research released an online poll of 1,550 people showing that about two per cent of Canadians do not believe climate change is occurring. Carmen Dybwad, CEO of IPAC-CO2 Research Inc., a Regina-based centre that studies carbon capture and storage, said after the survey was released, "Canadians from coast to coast overwhelmingly believe climate change is real and occurring, at least in part due to human activity." The point is that climate change deniers are becoming increasingly marginal in the face of overwhelming evidence for the reality of human-caused global warming.

A similar scenario seems to apply to Canada's ethnic and cultural diversity. During the 40th anniversary of Canadian multiculturalism in 2011, a survey of 2,345 Canadians released by the Association of Canadian Studies showed that two-thirds of Canadians favour ethnic diversity and three-quarters support the idea of young people preserving their cultural heritage.

But there's more. The same poll showed 46 per cent believe immigrants should give up their customs and traditions to become more like the majority. At first glance, this might look contradictory. But for me, a Canadian from an immigrant background who lives Canada's diversity daily, the seemingly conflicting results only confirm that nation-building is a work in progress. As we welcome immigrants and refugees from around the world, the way we define who we are and how we live together will continue to evolve, just as we grapple with the impacts of climate change on our lives.

If we want to achieve positive change, we must walk the talk. That means if we profess to be a nation of diverse cultures, we need to show we are open to those with different languages and cultural backgrounds. And if we profess to be a nation that believes climate change is real and human activities are a major factor, we must do everything we can to curb carbon emissions.

In light of the realities of climate change and diversity, the way to overcome our challenges is for Canadians, local and immigrants, to be open and inclusive to science and people, just as David Suzuki said at the diversity forum: "I have been amazed by how geneticists can use DNA technology to trace the movement of people across the planet. All the trails lead back to Africa 150,000 years ago. So what is all this business about racism? We are all Africans!"

November 6, 2013

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