Canadian immigrants and indigenous peoples have more in common than they might think, according to Ratna Omidvar, the executive director of the Ted Rogers School of Management’s Global Diversity Exchange.
Among them, she said, are shared experiences of colonization, marginalization, racism and discrimination.
“We strive to protect our language and our culture in mainstream society, and this is what [indigenous peoples] are also trying to do,” Omidvar said to a crowd of about 100 people.
Omidvar was one of five speakers at the March 23 panel entitled “A New Conversation: Indigenous and New Canadian Perspectives on Canada.” It was moderated by Hayden King, Ryerson professor and the director of the Centre for Indigenous Governance.
The event discussed the relationship between indigenous peoples and immigrants in Canada, as the country’s oldest and newest citizens.
Although they share many similarities, she pointed out, they stand on separate sides when it comes to their rights.
She gave two reasons for this: the first is what she calls the “superficial understanding” of Canadian history that immigrants have.
“We don’t understand it, we don’t know it, we don’t get it,” Omidvar said. “It’s not an excuse, but it’s a fact.”
The second is the construction of society into “silos,” or categories such as francophones, anglophones, indigenous peoples and multiculturals.
“These silos are reflected in the machinery of the government and the policy making of the government,” she said. “We […] are rarely encouraged to intermingle.”
John Ralston Saul, the president of PEN International and distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson, said the goal of the panel was to begin to work out “how to live together and what that requires.”
Mercredi said that indigenous peoples haven’t yet discussed their rights with new Canadians for a couple of reasons.
“We haven’t had this dialogue in part because we don’t know where to begin […] and in part because we don’t know where they’re going to stand – with us or with the old conversation,” he said.
“If you’re a new Canadian, do you understand the history of this country, or do you have a single understanding that has been taught by colonizers?,” asked Mercredi. “Do you stand with us [or with them]?”
Randy Boyagoda, the director of Zone Learning at Ryerson, answered this by saying that immigrants stand neither with nor against indigenous peoples.
“I would suspect that they stand in different rooms,” he said. “[…This issue] would seem like a luxury good to them.”
Boyagoda also said that new immigrants would often not care for such issues for a couple of reasons. The first is because “they have more pressing socioeconomic matters before them.”
The second is that immigrants would gain more “self-understanding” from issues that are more closely related to where they are from.
“Those sorts of concerns, I think, would take priority over what they would see as kind of an internal and old-fashioned Canadian conversation,” said Boyagoda.
But Omidvar believes that indigenous peoples and new Canadian immigrants working side-by-side is going to be the new face of the country.
“We are the only two sectors of the population in this country that are growing,” she said. “When we become citizens, we become members of the family.'”
The event was organized in collaboration by the Ryerson Centre for Immigration and Settlement and the Centre for Indigenous Governance.