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the lunch

Ratna Omidvar is dedicated to helping other immigrants make the transition to the work force. Economic integration is the key to becoming a part of Canadian society, she says, and being economically integrated essentially 'means having a job.'RACHEL IDZERDA/The Globe and Mail

Like many immigrants who ended up in Canada, Ratna Omidvar initially didn't have an overwhelming drive to choose this country. "I had no intention of coming to Canada," she said, noting that as a young girl growing up in India, she was most interested in learning German.

It has been to Canada's great gain, however, that Ms. Omidvar landed here, where she has spent more than three decades fighting to make sure this is a more inclusive country and that Canada is getting the maximum advantage from the skills, drive and entrepreneurship that arrive along with immigrants from around the world.

Ms. Omidvar has established herself as one of the country's foremost experts on immigration and diversity, with a network of colleagues at the highest levels of government, business and the non-profit sector.

After years of running the poverty-fighting Maytree foundation, last fall she was named head of the new Global Diversity Exchange housed at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Toronto's Ryerson University. The GDX, as she calls it, will do research and exchange information about diversity and the inclusion of immigrants and visible minorities – not just in Canada but all over the world.

It is essentially a "think-and-do tank," Ms. Omidvar, 65, tells me over lunch at one of Toronto's best Chinese restaurants – Lai Wah Heen. As we tuck into the dim sum, she talks about how the GDX will tap into the great minds who have studied immigration and settlement, while sharing concrete strategies and experiences that have worked effectively.

While national governments function as the gatekeepers for immigration – letting people in or keeping them out – it is local efforts, usually at the city level, that make the difference in getting immigrants to prosper, she said. And when immigrants prosper, she insists, everyone else does as well.

An example of an effective local initiative? "The Red Cross in Copenhagen launched an effort to teach migrants, in particular migrant women who are in long flowing robes, how to ride a bike," she says. "They taught them how to obey the rules of the road and the written and unwritten rules of conduct. They have normalized the immigrant woman who looks different. She is just biking along like everybody else."

Before talking about the crucial factors that help – or prevent – immigrants from contributing to society and the economy, Ms. Omidvar takes me back to the unlikely story of how she ended up in Canada, after growing up in the Punjab region of India.

Ms. Omidvar had become proficient enough in German to teach it in India, but the German government asked her to go to the next level by studying in Munich. "They thought of me as some sort of cultural ambassador," she said.

While on a hike in the Alps, she met the man who would become her husband – an Iranian who was also studying in Germany. They went to Iran to live, but got caught up in the revolution and the war between Iran and Iraq. To escape, they crossed into Turkey, making their way back to Germany. But Germany was not welcoming immigrants at that time, and they had to find another place to live.

They had family and friends in Canada, and the internationalist attitude of then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau had an impact. "Somehow [his] notion of multiculturalism really spoke to us," she said.

But it didn't go smoothly. "We applied to come to Canada and we were rejected the first time," Ms. Omidvar said. "They didn't give us reasons. … but they don't give you reasons." Persistent efforts by friends in Canada finally got them accepted six months later. The value of that personal network had a profound impact on Ms. Omidvar. It underlined to her that "what you know matters, but who you know matters more."

On June 2, 1981, they stepped off the plane in Canada. "It was a red letter day. We felt free. We were euphoric."

But, like many immigrants, they soon realized how tough the transition would be. Ms. Omidvar couldn't get a job as a teacher ("Who wants to learn German from an Indian who has come here from Iran as a refugee?"). Her husband, an engineer, came up against the problem of meeting Canadian qualifications.

They lost years of their working lives, and for Ms. Omidvar it meant a complete change in direction. "It wasn't easy, but I am a bit of a risk-taker, so almost by accident I started to work at an NGO [non-governmental organization]. I reinvented myself in this field, which is why I am here today."

Now, she is dedicated to helping other immigrants make that transition to the work force. Economic integration is the key to becoming a part of Canadian society, she says, and being economically integrated essentially "means having a job."

Many businesses now realize that employing a diverse work force gives them a leg up in selling products to diverse clients. At the same time, companies are also learning they can take advantage of the global knowledge and language skills of their employees – especially if they are doing business overseas.

This is a subject that clearly needs more study, Ms. Omidvar said, and may be a key topic for GDX. "Research in this area is underdeveloped in Canada – whether and how the links that we have, with diaspora communities, result in trade opportunities in developing markets."

Another crucial field that needs far more analysis, she said, is the immigrant path to entrepreneurship – a route that many take when they find it hard to break into the corporate world.

"It is fascinating how certain communities have begun to put their stamp on certain sectors," she said. "The Koreans in the corner-store industry, the Somalians with the dollar stores, and you can't take a limo to the airport without coming up against someone who is from Brampton who originally came from the Punjab." What needs particular study, she adds, is "the pathway, and what we can do to support the immigrant entrepreneur."

One diversity initiative that is already well advanced is the effort to get more immigrants and visible minorities on boards of directors. The DiverseCity onBoard program – which Ms. Omidvar helped launch at Maytree and is now housed at GDX – has helped place more than 700 people from underrepresented communities on the boards of public agencies, charities and non-profits in Toronto. It has now expanded to Montreal, Ottawa, Hamilton, London, Ont., Calgary and Vancouver. In the long run this will produce a "pipeline" of experienced individuals, Ms. Omidvar said, some of whom will end up on corporate boards where minorities are still highly underrepresented.

Ms. Omidvar has managed to recruit many top business leaders to her vision. Dominic D'Alessandro, former chief executive of Manulife Financial Corp., worked with Ms. Omidvar to promote mentoring programs for immigrants at the insurance company and other large corporations. "She made converts of everybody," Mr. D'Alessandro said. "I can't think of anybody we called on who wasn't responsive to the vision that she was setting out, about a more inclusive community."

Still, many barriers to immigrant integration remain, Ms. Omidvar acknowledges, and she is acutely aware of the backlash and bad feeling that sometimes bubble to the surface in Canada. When she wrote a commentary in The Globe and Mail in 2013, suggesting that the citizenship oath of allegiance to the Queen should be replaced with an oath to "Canada, its laws and its institutions," a slew of ugly online comments appeared. Many of these said essentially: Go home if you don't like it here.

To see these kind of views expressed – even in the dodgy underworld of online commentary – was disheartening for Ms. Omidvar, whose accolades include the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario.

She also finds it unfortunate that the Conservative government is using issues such as the wearing of the niqab in citizenship ceremonies as a means to divide Canadians. "That has been picked on by the Prime Minister as a wedge issue that speaks to their base, and divides other bases," she said.

Still, Ms. Omidvar is confident that, in time, it will be easier for immigrants to become integrated in Canadian society and for established Canadians to accept newcomers with open arms. She is heartened by the views expressed by her daughters – one of whom is a lawyer and the other a market researcher – that diversity is now a given. "What is wonderful about their lives is that they are so used to everyone being different, and they just accept it as the norm."

And over all, she said, most Canadians see the value in welcoming newcomers. "One of the wonderful things is that most Canadians understand that we need immigration," she said. "We will argue about who the immigrant is, and how they should come … and whether they cover their hair. But we don't, as a country, argue about the fact that we need immigration. And we don't have any political party that is explicitly against more immigration. That is very unusual."

Essentially, she said, "we are creating a new world here."


Ratna Omidvar

Age: 65

Place of birth: Amritsar, India

Family: Married, with two daughters

Education: Bachelor of arts, University of New Delhi

On why people want to come to Canada: "There is peace and security, there is law and order, there are public schools and public health."

On the value of officially becoming a citizen: "Citizenship cannot be underestimated, as the final step in attaching yourself completely to this country. Home ownership is the other one. Very high numbers of immigrants will own homes after six or seven years."

On Canadian refugee policy: "I worry about the fact that we have become a little hard-headed. There is this overriding narrative that we are generous, so it is okay for us to cut back, or step back. Refugees, in fact, over time will create wealth in ways that we don't measure and we are not aware of."

On Toronto: "When Rob Ford was mayor, city council made some of the most progressive moves on immigration. I don't know how that happened."

On Vancouver: "Vancouver is doing some really amazing stuff around … the relationship between the newest residents of this country and the oldest. It has a city-level effort to bring new immigrants and First Nations people together – to put them in a room and have a dialogue."

On smaller cities: "I saw a study that said immigrants who go to really small places integrate quicker. But I'm not so sure about that. I think the numbers are so small that you are getting individual opinions."

On the value of networking: "David Pecaut taught me this. I learned from him the art of involving people in a way that they saw the benefit for their own institution. He was masterful at this. It comes home to me again and again how crucial networks are."