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In this six-part series of interviews, Canadians with a variety of experiences discuss the major challenges our country is facing and how best to address them. This instalment deals with making pluralism work.

Jean-Paul Restoule, associate professor in the department of leadership, higher and adult education at the University of Toronto, was interviewed on Oct. 8 by Elizabeth Pinnington, a consultant with Reos Partners.

Pinnington: What keeps you up at night?

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Restoule: The suicide rate for aboriginal youth is much higher than for non-aboriginal people, and job prospects are grim. At the same time, there's a lot of optimism among young aboriginal people. While the birth rate for Canadian citizens is relatively low, the aboriginal population is young and growing fast. This population needs to be courted to help address gaps in the work force. With education and training, there's great potential there.

People dig in their heels when forced to grapple with the fact that Canada exists on stolen aboriginal land. They're afraid they're going to lose something if they talk about what it means to share what's been stolen or to give up some of the power that was taken. These are legitimate fears, but the discourse is often uninformed and hateful.

Pinnington: What are important crossroads that we're facing as we move forward as a collective or as a nation?

Restoule: Having aboriginal overrepresentation in the criminal justice system versus having proportional representation of aboriginal people in education and the work force. So much is spent on treating symptoms as opposed to preventing these kinds of choices in the first place. Canadians need to include aboriginal people in Canadian institutions – but on aboriginal terms.

Pinnington: How can we build mutual respect?

Restoule: When we open up workplaces and schools to aboriginal participation, that tears apart the stereotypes people have. Relationships break down fear. Things like exchange programs between indigenous and non-indigenous youth replace some of the stereotypes we get from film and media with real relationships that are rich and complicated. The more we can do to encourage these relationships, the better.

For example, aboriginal education enhancement agreements in B.C., where making outreach to parents and communities is something that the staff have to do, have resulted in much greater involvement of students and parents in the life of the school and the community. This means that instead of teachers having to manage tensions between aboriginal and non-aboriginal students and families, these relationships are opportunities for enriching activities in the school. Aboriginal students and families are more likely to want to be involved and to do things together that help the school or to share experiences. This also helps to enrich non-aboriginal learners, as they get opportunities to visit in the local community and see the kinds of things that they're doing, whether it's restoring the health of the river, which everyone is drawing from. Those kinds of things make a meaningful difference.

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Many people have been welcomed into communities because they have shown good faith and integrity and humility. They say, "I'm interested in learning more, what can I do?" From there it's a simple process: "Come to the community gathering, to the feast, to the pow-wow." It deepens and becomes, "Come to the ceremonies." And before you know it, friendships and relationships form.

That's where things really change, when you start to see people as individuals, rather than as one aspect of their identity. You come together around common interests, and because you have slightly different ways of seeing the world or having experienced the world, learning happens. There's a common humanity, a shared sense of responsibility to the land and to each other, which is where we should be starting.

Possible Canadas is a project created by Reos Partners, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, and a diverse coalition of philanthropic and community organizations. To see longer versions of these interviews, or to join the conversation, visit possiblecanadas.ca

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