Building cultural intelligence for a more sustainable Canada

As we approach the end of Canada’s sesquicentennial and look back on the first 150 years since Confederation, it’s safe to say this milestone has been a wake up call for many Canadians. The anniversary has offered an opportunity to examine who we are as a country, and to consider what’s needed to ensure that our communities will be inclusive, resilient and sustainable for the next 150 years.

For some, Canada’s 150th has been a time to celebrate. For others it’s been a chance to highlight the need for truth and reconciliation, recognizing that it’s hard to talk about where we are going without also talking about where we have been.

Last Thursday at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered a sombre speech that reflected on the country’s founding. He spoke about our dark past, saying that, “For First Nations, Métis Nation and Inuit peoples in Canada, those early colonial relationships were not about strength through diversity, or a celebration of differences. For Indigenous peoples in Canada, the experience was mostly one of humiliation, neglect and abuse.”

The cultural narrative of Canada is rooted in the idea that we are a multicultural and multilingual society, yet we know this country is far from being inclusive for everyone—a plight perhaps most deeply felt by those who have lived on this land the longest. While Canada has at times shown itself to be a welcoming place for immigrants, migrants and refugees, we have a long journey ahead to ensure that all people living here feel like they truly belong.

In the next 20 years, this task will get even harder. The makeup of our communities is changing and will soon become even more pluralistic, multilingual and diverse with the continued growth of visible minority, Indigenous and newcomer populations. By 2036, Statistics Canada predicts that up to 30 per cent of all residents will have been born outside of Canada, another 30 per cent will speak a first language that’s neither English nor French, and 20 per cent will be born in Canada, but with at least one immigrant parent. In short, the Canada of tomorrow will be very different from the Canada of today.

Despite our growing pluralism and a national introspection around the importance of reconciliation, Canadians are still challenged by issues of acceptance. Cultural intelligence, the measure of a person’s capacity to function in a multicultural environment, is inconsistent across the country. Yet it’s necessary for understanding our identity, including what subcultures we belong to. Being more culturally intelligent, as both individuals and as a collective, means being fully aware of what makes us who we are, and how our culture influences the way we work with other people.

Some have criticized the Prime Minister for being too inwardly focused during his speech to the General Assembly. What do our country’s failures regarding Indigenous peoples have to do with its present place in the world? But reconciliation is a core part of building Canada’s cultural intelligence, and that newly gained knowledge will help us operate effectively in unfamiliar surroundings, whether at home or abroad.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) —an ambitious agenda to end poverty, confront climate change, and reduce global inequalities by the year 2030—address many of the topics that matter most to our communities. They also provide a clear path towards strengthened belonging and greater cultural intelligence. Prime Minister Trudeau demonstrated this by connecting individual SDGs to the challenges facing Indigenous communities, including the need for poverty reduction, clean water and sanitation, and gender equality.

In a global context, we have seen what happens when cultural intelligence comes under threat. In the United Kingdom, we see a Brexit vote that has fractured the cooperative spirit of the European Union. In the United States, we see the triumph of a political will that is rooted in populism and nativism. Around the world, Islamophobia is alive and well. Racism endures in many insidious forms. This divisiveness is in contrast to the very concept that underpins the SDGs: Leave no one behind.

Whether we like it or not, this concept is integral to our lives as Canadians living in an interconnected era of globalization. If there’s a refugee crisis in Syria, or an earthquake in Mexico, or an epidemic most anywhere else, then the impact of those disasters will be felt in our communities. We are not socially, culturally or economically isolated. What happens abroad finds its way home to us.

As the Prime Minister reminded us in last week’s speech, Canada is a “work in progress.” In the next 150 years, our country’s great experiment will be put to the test. It’s our job to respond with the kind of empathy and leadership that’s needed in this global age. We can do this by committing to the SDGs and building our collective cultural intelligence. The livelihood of our future depends on it.

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