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Khalil Shariff

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.

Khalil Shariff, chief executive officer of the Aga Khan Foundation Canada, was interviewed on Sept. 5 by Adam Kahane, chairman, North America, of Reos Partners.

Kahane: If you could talk to a clairvoyant, what would you most want to know about Canada's future?

Shariff: I would want to know how Canada and Canadian institutions will continue to adapt to an increasingly diversified population. Toronto is now the most diverse city in the world – there are people from more places in the world in Toronto than in any other city. How will Canada manage its position as a demographic crossroads of the world? I have great optimism and confidence that Canada will manage this test, but we will have to be imaginative about how it will happen.

Kahane: Is there something about Canada that you think is distinctive in the world today?

Shariff: Canada has developed a kind of civic intent to make diversity work. In our society, there is a broad sense that we're not willing to indulge in the political opportunism of division in any serious way.

Like every country, we face challenges, difficulties and sources of division, some of which are natural and some of which are open to exploitation. What's interesting for us to understand is how our country responds to these kinds of shocks – and what it would look like if the same shocks happened in other kinds of settings.

Kahane: Why is pluralism so important?

Shariff: In the world as a whole, the notion of homogeneity is quickly disappearing for two reasons. First, we're more aware of our individual differences – our "selfness" – than ever before. Second, we have experienced demographic movements that historically were unheard of. These two factors mean that the idea of managing difference and being able to live in some kind of common framework might be fundamental for any society today.

Someone once told me that, for an individual, humility is the king of virtues. What is the king of virtues for a society – the virtue from which all other virtues and capacities stem? I wonder if the capacity for pluralism might be the source from which all others stem.

If you can build the social capacity to deal with pluralism, then you can deal with a host of other questions. You can't sustain a vibrant pluralist society if you haven't thought hard about the nature and structure of your economy. Large economic inequities or exclusivist or extractive institutions are incompatible with pluralism. So in order to underwrite pluralism, you need to have a certain kind of economic system. Political institutions and the ability to respond to the great diversity of human needs, aspirations and identities are big drivers of pluralism. You can't have political institutions that are bent on divisiveness or that pit people against each other: Things will fall apart. And to sustain a pluralist society, you also need a certain kind of cultural life that balances unifying themes with lots of room for individual cultural expression and creative cross-cultural collaborations.

Kahane: So pluralism is one of our untapped or underappreciated assets?

Shariff: I believe so, at least underappreciated by Canadians themselves if not by others. There's a danger both in Canadians not being humble enough and in being too humble about our pluralism. No one wants a bunch of arrogant pluralists running around; on the other hand, being too humble can serve as a way of devaluing an asset and somehow shielding you from assuming responsibility for sharing it. Of course, pluralism is not just a Canadian asset. It's an asset in Canada or of Canada, but it's also a global human asset. We're just custodians of that asset for the world. What does it mean for us to use this asset with the world as a beneficiary?

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

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