The world is a circle, smaller than we think, and we are all related, probably more closely than six degrees of separation. That is the premise behind a new initiative I attended last week: the first gathering of 6DegreesTO Citizen Space. Sponsored by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, under co-chairs former Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson and John Ralston Saul, the focus was on migration, refugees and the issues of inclusion, exodus and prosperity.
The participants came from across Canada and around the world, a gathering of exceptionally experienced people who are working with the issues in many ways. Three mayors talked about how cities are dealing with inclusion: Naheed Nenshi of Calgary, Madeleine Redfern of Iqaluit, and Rabin Baldewsingh of The Hague… three different perspectives in three different contexts. Mexican political scientist and journalist, Denise Dresser, who has three million followers on her Twitter account, is a high-profile activist in a country which is our NAFTA partner but which we know little about. Author Pico Iyer, an acclaimed travel writer and the author of a recent biography on the Dalai Lama, spoke from the perspective of a perpetual outsider. Senator Ratna Omidvar, founding Executive Director of the Global Diversity Exchange at Ryerson; Eliza Reid, Canadian-born First Lady of Iceland; Doug Saunders, columnist for the Globe and Mail; Kweku Mandela, grandson of Nelson Mandela; Yusuf Muftuoglu, former advisor to past Turkish president Abdullah Gül; James Orbinski from Doctors Without Borders; Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, correspondent for Al Jazeera and frequent commentator on CNN, NBC and BBC… and the list goes on.
Journalists, academics, community organizers, front-line service providers, business leaders, government workers, media types, immigrants who have adapted, and refugees now adapting, to new lives in Canada… all brought to the table particularly well-informed perspectives on migration and diversity. The world has more displaced persons now than since World War II and this reality is projected to continue.
How to respond? What should governments be doing? Businesses? Community groups? Individual citizens? What does Canada bring to the table? Why is Canada considered a world leader in this area? How can we live up to our reputation?
What do migrants bring in return? Increased levels of entrepreneurship. New innovation. Openings to the broader world. Energy and a passionate commitment to success for themselves and others. The 6Degrees Fellows Program generated two substantial reports released at the session. The first: on “New Canadian Entrepreneurs: An Underappreciated Contribution to Canadian Prosperity?” by Bessma Momani and sponsored by the Waterloo-based Centre for International Governance Innovation. The second: “Open for Business: Immigrant/New Canadian Entrepreneurs in Canada” by Ricardo Cohn and Eric Adebayo, with the support of Vancity. Both are available from the Institute for Canadian Citizenship.
The event was held in the exceptionally beautiful Centre for Learning at the Art Gallery of Ontario. This facility is flooded with natural light, has break-out rooms with walls of glass, a large mingling area for meals and mixing, and an auditorium at the foot of a glass staircase which can be used “in the round.” To facilitate discussion, “as if at a dinner table,” all the many participants in the event sat in a circle around a raised centre stage. Some of the experts, called “framers,” sat on the stage; others, called “intervenors,” sat in the first row of the circle. The format was less a panel discussion than a conversation between all of them, with questions, comments and observations from the rest of the participants on the floor. It was a remarkably fruitful format which provided ample scope for the exchange of a range of experience.
One theme was the importance of the language we use to describe events. The truth is that particular language shapes perceptions, that perceptions shape actions and non-actions, and that what happens is often a direct response to how the events are described. The question is: does better language result in better thinking? In an age when the media is no longer limited to professional journalists, when everyone has access on the internet to all the information the world has to offer, and when social media and blogging give a voice to anyone who chooses to use it, how do we encourage an engagement with the issues? A good question. Over the next months, I will return to what I learned at 6Degrees several times. I hope you will find these reports of interest.