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Ratna Omidvar

In a six-week 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 increasing the innovativeness of our economy.

Ratna Omidvar, executive director of the Global Diversity Exchange at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University, was interviewed on Oct. 16 by Elizabeth Pinnington, a consultant with Reos Partners.

Pinnington: What excites you?

Omidvar: Canada has the skeleton for how a future society should function. We are today what many other societies likely will become; we are home to many nationalities, many races, many religions. Diversity is part of our DNA, primarily in the urban centres. We function generally well – nobody is rioting on our streets, people are civil to each other, you go on the subway with people packed in tight and nobody is shouting racist remarks.

Local institutions have contributed a great deal to this narrative. For example, in Toronto, schools have been remarkably progressive in reflecting the multicultural face of Canada in the curriculum. It's no longer "Jenny and Thomas go to the store to buy sugar," it's "Fatima and Ali go to the store to buy rice." These things make a difference.

In other ways, business has taken the lead in adapting to our new diverse reality. An interesting example from the financial services sector is the changing rules for who qualifies for a mortgage. In the past, the bank only counted the incomes of two individuals: a couple. Immigrant employees at one financial institution pointed out a missed business opportunity. They said, "Wait a second, immigrant families don't always live as husband and wife; they live as husband and wife, brother, sister, aunt, uncle." The whole family works together to purchase a home which, along with citizenship, is a significant indicator of belonging.

Pinnington: If things turn out well over the next 20 years, what would the story be?

Omidvar: Looking into the future, I see a different Canada, built on the momentum of today. We have doubled our population. As a result, we have 10 big urban centres, not just four. In those urban centres are residents of unrivaled diversity. This strengthens our economy and prosperity. Because we are a bigger economy, we're able to produce more, we're able to trade more, we're able to sell to more people, we have more people with big ideas. Our population growth has stabilized through immigration and our economy has the capacity to absorb immigrants at all skill levels and many more refugees.

Second, we are an economic powerhouse because we are trading with many more countries instead of relying so heavily on the United States. We have addressed our overreliance on one market by aggressively diversifying our political and business relationships. Through immigration and through diaspora networks, our natural links to the outside world have expanded. Canadians are adept at interpreting the written and unwritten rules and regulations in different markets and are nimble in moving from one culture to another. Canada's future is in paying attention to and releasing this latent power of the immigrants of today and yesterday, and strengthening the connections between places, markets, suppliers and ideas.

Pinnington: What keeps you up at night?

Omidvar: We are a rules-bound society. We don't like to take too much risk. Peace, order, good governance: That's us. Not taking risks means surrounding yourself with the same old ideas and the same old people that reflect those ideas. Research shows that if you want to produce the same rigid thinking, your team should be homogeneous. However, if you want to create something new, different, crazy, then you should ensure that your team is made up of people who are radically different from you. It may create measured conflict and chaos, but it will result in creativity, and we need creativity.

In Toronto, whilst our visible minority population is roughly 49 per cent, it only fills 13 per cent of leadership positions. The people who sit in boardrooms and hold corporate power look like Old Canada; they don't look like New Canada. Why is it that we're not Silicon Valley, apart from sunshine? Because in Silicon Valley, the price of entry is not where you were born, the price of entry is your idea. We're not there yet.

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