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A new Canadian holds a flag as she takes part in a citizenship ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on April 17, 2019.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Aleem Bharwani is a director for public policy and strategic partnerships at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine, policy lead for the O’Brien Institute for Public Health, and a clinical associate professor in the Department of Medicine. Deborah Yedlin is the Chancellor of the University of Calgary.

In 2018, the University of Calgary and the Aga Khan University signed a memorandum of understanding to facilitate international cooperation with regard to human development, global health, social justice and pluralism. The creation of UCalgary’s Pluralism Initiative is a product of this agreement, with the goal of teaching our students to become community builders for the world of tomorrow through experiences that result in their ability to value difference.

Our vision for Canada’s future is predicated on the simple concept that pluralism is a public good. A society that recognizes, respects, reconciles and values differences is a society that also creates economic value and social cohesion.

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The University of Calgary recognizes diversity as a sociological fact. However, how we engage in diversity is a choice. As a term, it can often be perceived as referring to differences in gender, ethnicity, race, language, culture and religion, but true diversity extends to any form of difference including abilities, geography, discipline, sector, and socioeconomic class.

When we fail to productively engage difference, conflict can entrench itself along axes of exclusion. The outcomes can be problematic: social, political and economic inequities, exclusion and harassment, political polarization, as well as inter-group violence within or across borders.

However, new societal value can be created when we constructively recognize, respect and value difference. Social cohesion thrives and innovations arise when attitudes, policies and practices acknowledge difference as a source of value rather than as a threat. Pluralism therefore must be considered by actors across government, public and private sector, as well as civil society, making pluralism a vital citizenship behaviour.

We are considered citizens of cities and nations because of a shared commitment to our collective security, sovereignty and prosperity. However, borders are not the contained structures they once were. In the context of increasingly interdependent political, social, economic, digital and environmental systems, our fates are increasingly intertwined across traditional borders. People and ideas, infections and cures, air and water – these all cross traditional borders, blurring the line between local and global, and slowly erasing our sense of jurisdictional confinement.

Whether and how we engage difference and the consequences of those differences is a fundamental question of what outcome we seek in our local and global communities. A disposition towards pluralism and community citizenship requires us to know ourselves, know each other and know the systems in which we are integrated.

This foundation, when paired with a commitment to social innovation and entrepreneurial thinking, intends to position community citizens as active, inclusive community builders serving the peoples with whom they share a common future.

We need to understand Canada’s role in the world, particularly in the context of increasing global polarization at a time when cooperation is vitally needed to address critical challenges such as climate change, systemic poverty or distributing a COVID-19 vaccine.

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To understand pluralism is to recognize that it is an important element in business and in the ability of companies to create value and economic growth. Today, more than ever, we need sound leadership and innovative business practices guided by pluralistic principles that are inclusive and progressive. The attitudes, behaviours and skills that foster inclusive work environments are the very same practices that generate new and innovative business ideas.

The same logic can be applied in the field of education, which has been transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic into a predominantly digital platform, making it harder to nurture and model empathy, not to mention teach the critical citizenship skills often acquired in a classroom setting.

Our Pluralism Initiative also seeks to examine the tension between truth and civility in social media. Both elements are critical for society to reach its pluralistic outcomes. The challenge – as we see every day – is that advocating for truth can require incivility to be part of the process. The question we need to answer in this context is whether there is an alternative path to address what is increasingly uncivil behaviour acted out from behind the often anonymous digital curtain, and with harmful consequences.

Finally, we need to better understand the link between pluralism and equity, diversity and inclusion. Canada, like many countries around the world, is grappling with declining trust in established institutions, which in turn compromises the critical supports that have ensured the stability of our civil society for much of our history.

Re-establishing and elevating this discourse is critical to ensuring pluralism remains a pillar value in our shared future – no matter what we do or where we live.

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