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100 million people, 100 million reasons for change - with Senator Ratna Omidvar

Date Published: July 14, 2021

Immigration is key to building Canada’s future, but we haven’t been hitting the nail on the head so far... so how do we do it right? And how do we make sure that it works for everyone in Canada? Senator Ratna Omidvar is part of The Century Initiative, which means she wants to see 100 million Canadians by 2100. She chats to Tim about what our country looks like with that many people and helps us plot a course to get there.

Ratna Omidvar [preview]:

We need to now bring immigrants in to develop a necklace of cities in Canada, from east to west, much like the United States. And that should be connected by digital infrastructure, by physical infrastructure. That is what will grow the economy and increase the GDP per capita.

Tim Coldwell:

This is Building Good. I’m Tim Coldwell.

The most important construction material we have is people. Immigration is a net good for Canada. Economically, inviting more people into the country raises living standards for pretty much everyone. We have an ageing population as well, and so we need more young people to keep our health care and pensions afloat. But we haven’t really been hitting the nail on the head.

Immigrants cluster in the hub cities. Some people grow resentful when they see the cost of housing soar. If you live in somewhere like Vancouver or Toronto, you’ve probably had an immigrant cab driver who was an engineer or maybe even a doctor before they moved here. We just aren’t making the best use of our new Canadians.

I’m speaking to one immigrant who’s changing that.


Tim Coldwell:

The Honourable Senator Ratna Omidvar is going to tell us a little bit of what Canada’s future might look like, and help plot a map for how we might get there. This isn’t a short-term project. The Senator is part of the Century Initiative, an organization that wants to see 100 million Canadians by the year 2100. And because the Senator wasn’t born in Canada, I want to start with her own story, because behind that figure—100 million Canadians—there are millions of stories of individual journeys and families relocated.

Ratna Omidvar:

I actually first visited Canada in 1974 as a student. It was such a beautiful place. I really loved it. But I never ever had an inkling that I would actually move here. But life happens. You know? And that’s what happened to me. I met my future husband while I was in university in Bavaria, on a hike up The Alps. And when our studies finished, he was like me, a foreign student, so we went to his country, which was Iran.

I think anyone who knows the history of what went down remembers what happened in ’76/’77/’78. And we got caught up in that whole political upheaval in Iran around the Islamic Revolution. And in the beginning, you know, we were just normal citizens. We said, “No one is going to bother us. We are not political. We just go about our lives.” And that’s where—you know, I tell people, “That’s where you are wrong. You’re not isolated in the middle of something that is happening.”

And one day, sure enough, the Revolution knocked at our door. And we had to decide very quickly: pack the bag; flee; save your life. And we travelled over—because, you know, there were no airplanes, airports had been bombed—we had to take a very long, tortuous journey over the mountains into northern Turkey, wait in a room with hundreds of other people wanting to get on to Turkey. And the room was the border. And one side of the room was a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini, and the other side of the room was Kemal Ataturk. And we so desparately wanted to get to Kemal Ataturk. I remember praying silently, saying, “Dear God, if you get me over to the other side, I will never ask you for anything again.” So God was kind and merciful. We did get over to the other side. And I have broken that pledge many, many, many times, because I’m ony human.

But that was the beginning of the exodus, so to say. And then we thought, you know, “Where do we go?” People from Iran were not exactly popular in the world, those days. We applied to come to Canada. We were turned down once. I tell that story to every Minister of Immigration now, because it was a bureaucratic mistake that they made. But we persisted. And we arrived here on a glorious June day in 1981, I think.

And we just thought—we were 31 years old, we had a baby—we said, “Life’s ahead of us.” That was the beginning.

Tim Coldwell:

Do you think that experience has shaped your personality, and your career in public service?

Ratna Omidvar:

Nothing in my life has a dot connected to it outside accident. But you’re absolutely right, Tim. That experience of having to overnight give up everything that you held dear, it puts life into a perspective. But it also, life throws you curve-balls; and I have learned to stand up and catch them. I have learned to be resilient. Even though I may be incredibly discouraged or challenged, I know there is a way out.

Tim Coldwell:

We had the opportunity to collaborate on a Bill that you were leading in the Senate—Bill C-344. And I self-identify as an at-risk youth. I don’t know where I would be today if Chandos didn’t give me an opportunity, as a 17-turning-18-year-old kid who didn’t have the best grades, didn’t have the best experience. I was going to be in poverty if someone didn’t take a chance on me. And it shaped me, my whole career. You know, I got a sense of purpose, and I found a second family in the organization.

You know, the idea of social procurement is something that I’m passionate about. I know that you are certainly passionate about it. And there’s a close connection to the topic of immigration.

How do you think most Canadians view immigration now?

Ratna Omidvar:

I’ll refer to the science on this, because there have been studies. Of course there are perceptions, always. But the studies have consistently shown that a large majority of Canadians support immigration—on the understanding that it works well for the country. There’s always a proportion that will not support it, and may never support it. But there is kind of a mushy middle that would support it if we showed them that it worked better. And the way to sway them is let them see that it works well for them.

And that is certainly a challenge that I’ve taken up, you’ve taken up, in many ways, in different ways. It can work better for everybody if we do certain things right and if we do certain things differently. Like social procurement—it’s an easy win-win-win-win. The bridges get built; the public is happy; people get jobs who wouldn’t get the jobs; they have a future that they wouldn’t have. I mean, who could argue against that?

Tim Coldwell:

Yes, exactly. You’re on the Board of the Century Initiative, in Canada. And I remember the first time I heard about that, my mind was completely blown. I had not been exposed to the kind of demographic analysis that underpins a lot of it—around Canada needs a population of 100 million by the year 2100 to hold our position, as I understand it, in the G7 and to have enough tax base to pay for the babyboomers who are retiring.

I’m acutely interested in that kind of a conversation, because in the construction industry, the single greatest predictor of construction activity is population growth. And so those cities in Canada that are forecasted to grow in terms of population are the cities in which we, as contractors, want to be.

How should we, as an industry or even a nation, think about population growth, and how to get the best value out of that?

Ratna Omidvar:

The conversation about population growth without prosperity is where it becomes unhinged. We simply can’t grow for the sake of growing. Like what are we growing for? So I think there are some fundamentals in this conversation that have to be clarified.

First, if we are going to be a country of 100 million—and I do believe that’s a right aspirational figure, that we can actually get to—you know, we’ve got to make sure that immigrants go to mid-sized and smaller communities and, most importantly, the Far North—Nunavut, the Yukon—where the industries of the future will be built. It will be construction there. It will be construction of a different kind, I would say. So that’s one thing: push it out.

If we continue, willy-nilly, to simply attract immigrants to the three hub cities, we’re going to create attendant problems. The resentment begins to build then. So I think we’ve got to disperse. We’ve got to have foundational elements of propersity: spread it out; provide childcare; provide a fundamental investment in urban infrastructure that allows people to get to work. So we need to make smart investments in public infrastructure; we need to disperse immigrants, and we need to do it in a way that they stay there.

And by the way, we have precedent in our own history. In 1907, Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier set out to double the population of Canada. And he did it. He did it in six or seven short years. The primary motivation was to settle The West. And who did we look for? We looked for cold-weather farmers from German, Ukraine, Poland, Russia. And they came in the 1906s. You probably know many of the descendants who are today political leaders. We brought them in, very deliberately, to settle The West, to grow the grain, to build the farmsteads.

Now we need to do a 2.0 of that: we need to now bring immigrants in to develop a necklace of cities in Canada, from east to west, much like the United States. And that should be connected by digital infrastructure, by physical infrastructure. That is what will grow the economy and increase the GDP per capita—as opposed to simply GDP growth, which is unequal growth, we know.

Tim Coldwell:

It’s mind-boggling for me to kind of think about it. So you know, a city like Sudbury all of a sudden wants to be a population of 1 million people or something, or Yellowknife 1 million people. Just think of the opportunity that’s there if we can help turn them into hubs for economy.

What do you think is key for helping municipal leaders in those secondary kind of markets—for lack of a better term? What do you think is key for helping them to see the opportunity with immigration?

Ratna Omidvar:

They’re actually pretty enlightened, I will say. Smaller and mid-city mayors know what is happening to their population. They’ve already bundled themselves together in different ways, especially in The Maritimes, especially when they are close to a highly attractive university. Those are the shiny baubles, you know? The wonderful universities in The Maritimes attract a huge number of foreign students. Foreign students are prime bait—if I may say so—for permanency. They should stay in those places. But they don’t. So the mayors of these cities, the local Chambers of Commerce, business people have come together to create, you know, constellations of welcome.

And parts of it are working—maybe not so well. You see, we have freedom of movement in this country—we can’t, unlike other jurisdictions who say, “If you want to come to Canada you have to actually live here and there for X number of years.” We can’t do that; and we shouldn’t do that. But you can provide incentives; you can provide structures. The federal government has got, now, a municipal nominee program. So a mayor, with his local citizens in a small town, they could get together and say, “We want to bring 10 immigrant families in.” And I would advise them to do numbers of 10, from the same community, so that isolation does not set in. This is what is called “cluster settlement.”

And the best example of cluster settlement is out west in Winnipeg. Why is it that there is such a huge Filipino community out there? It happened: one person came, they brought their family, then they brought their other family, and then it just grew and grew. So we can kickstart that system by bringing in 10 families together. But it’s a community that settles it, and that’s what will make the difference.

Tim Coldwell:

Canada has a lot of agricultural production. And you know, I think at one of the events that you and I chatted at, you mentioned to me a story, that I thought was amazing, about mozzarella cheese production in Italy. Can you share that story?

Ratna Omidvar:

That is a wonderful story.

Tim Coldwell:

It’s a great story.

Ratna Omidvar:

Yes. And that is a story that has its own iteration in Canada. You know, farmers in Italy—best cheese in the world, mozzarella—farming communities have typically handed down their business from generation to generation. But guess what? This next generation of Italians are hip, they want to have a different kind of lifestyle; there’s no one to milk the cows anymore. And so the Italians came together, quite smartly—it was a regional network in Tuscany—to look out for the community in the world that had the same affinity to looking after the land and looking after the cows that the Italians had. And lo’ and behold, they arrived at the Sikhs in The Punjab. So they transported Punjabi families—lock, stock, and barrel—to Italy, who then milked the cows, made the cheese, settled down, built cultivaras, became Italian citizens. And now, thank God for them because you and I can eat mozzarella.

What people don’t know is that this has happened here too—maybe not to such a glamourous extent—but the Sikh farmers who settled in British Columbia in early 1900s, working the bogs of the cranberry fields—standing in those rubber boots and in water, and it was not easy work—guess who owns many of those cranberry farms. It is the Sikhs themselves.

So we’ve seen this happen again and again. Looking across the world for clusters of community that could fit the need of local industry is a really good way. And if you make it local, it sticks. I believe very firmly in that. And if you have a local community that is welcoming and aware of some of the changes that may occur in their public institutions, then that’s the magic that works.

Tim Coldwell:

Yes. And you know, the conversation about a DEI. Before you start to talk about that, you have to acknowledge systemic racism in Canada. I want to just unpack that a little bit. And I think where I’m going with the question might be: how do you prepare a community for those changes that will occur in their schools and in their local community? Is there something that leaders in the community need to really focus on?

Ratna Omidvar:

I think starting proposals or conversations, so strategies about diversity and inclusion, without grounding them in a history of racism and oppression is like clapping with one hand. It doesn’t work.

So you have to first start with awareness, and self-awareness, and humility in a way. We may not have all been individually racist but we’ve benefitted from a legacy of racism that has accrued certain privileges to us—whether we were part of it or not. And then you can say: okay, the next step has to be to create the awareness, to create the narrative, to create the benchmarks and the progress; and be transparent about where we want to go, how long we’re going to take, and how we’re going to report out on it.

And I think, starting with the awareness—having a program, whether it’s reconciliation or a program of anti-racism, or a program of diversity and inclusion—you start with some metrics. You start with the evidence of who you are as a institution, or a region, or a workplace. How do you map out against the labour force availability—if you’re talking about a place of work. Why is it that all your senior managers are men; are women not available?

I mean, you have to do that kind of science, otherwise you’re tipping on anecdote. So get your science, get your evidence. And then proceed. Because once you know the science, and you know how far away you are from being inclusive of all the people that are available to you for X, Y, and Z, then you can sense some progress and some benchmarks.

Tim Coldwell:

You’re very passionate about the idea of nation-building. Can you unpack that a bit?

Ratna Omidvar:

We are a country with one of the largest land masses in the world. So. Just as in the last two centuries we focused on nation-building projects that were physical infrastructure—you know, we built the railroad east to west, that was the big one, then we built a wonderful medical health system, which was also an expression of nation-building—now it is time to build our nation through more connection with the people. And by this I just don’t mean the physical connection—being able to travel etc.—but a sort of sense of cohesion that we belong to the same country and we’re all in this together, and we need to build it, and we need to make it bigger, prosperous, happier, healthier for all.

That’s where I come back to the 100 million. We cannot do the 100 million without those platforms that knit our communities together. Physical infrastructure is certainly part of the knitting but it’s also, you know, connection people-to-people getting harder. It’s so much easier to be physically present in one country and be emotionally connected miles away. We’ve got to break that cycle a little. And the way to break it is through our public institutions: schools, hospitals, parks, library, hockey rinks. Those are the places that bring people out. And we need to do more of that.

So that’s what I mean by nation-building. People playing together, working together—all across the country as opposed to small, heavily populated bits. I am pretty concerned about, unless we have a good infusion of people into our small and mid-sized communities, they may well die.

Tim Coldwell:

For me, as a leader in the construction industry, the labour pool in the construction industry is one of the fastest ageing and oldest in Canada. And who is going to do plumbing and electrical work and construction work? We’re also seeing challenges with kids in junior high. So a lot of kids start to think about what they want to do for a career. And when was the last time that you heard a 13-year-old kid talk about wanting to be a plumber, or an electrician, or a mason?

And I think there’s been a societal kind of devaluation of people who do work with their hands. And there’s an incredible honour in doing work with your hands. You know, you take a look at what the German system looks like. They honour and respect people who do work with their hands, get into apprenticeships very young in the high school system.

Where do you think all of those sorts of thoughts take us, in terms of policy in Canada?

Ratna Omidvar:

Before we get to policy, we really have to think about our attitude. And the truth is that in this country, as opposed to Germany—where I lived—the trades are not given the status that they deserve. And in part, this is immigrant parents who come as tradespeople and say, “My son or daughter will be the first doctor in the family.” And that narrative runs through.

What we need to do is invest, from the lowest grade level, in disclosing to parents and to children the opportunities there are in the trades—whether it’s as a plumber or as a….

Tim Coldwell:

Sheet metal worker.

Ratna Omidvar:

Yes, sheet metal worker, who are in huge shortage, or drywall, or carpentry, or even hairdressing. These are all trades. So we need to have that conversation. We need to elevate it in status. Yes, we should absolutely borrow from the lessons of the Germans, but the Germans have a 400-year long history of pride in craftsmanship. They hand the trade down from father to son. They’re members of guilds who are very strong. Guilds sit at an equal level with the employers and the corporate sector. It’s a remarkably civil way of moving everyone together. Whereas in our country, the conversation between unions and employers is almost entirely confrontational.

Tim Coldwell:

So where does the conversation take us? What do you think is next in terms of government policy with regards to immigration, and nation-building? Do you have a sense of what’s coming next?

Ratna Omidvar:

I have a sense of what should come next. I think we’ve had a rude awakening. And the rude awakening is this: that our addiction to skilled workers does not meet the demands of the labour market as a whole, it just deals with a slice of it. And the way our immigration programs are structured is that if you are a skilled immigrant and you have all these points, you can come in and bring your family. If you are, let’s say, in a NOC category—National Occupation Category—that is lower than that of a skilled cat.—you know, you could be a meat packer, you could be a truck driver, you could be an agricultural worker, you could be a PSW, you could be a health care aide—then, if you are in the country as a temporary farm worker, the pathway to the next route is completely unclear. And until the Minister announced a new program, about a month ago, it was always going to be very arduous for these people to try and find a way to permanency.

So now we have an issue: we’ve got to meet certain targets. That’s a political target the Minister has to meet. So what does he do? He looks around and says, “Who’s already here who’d like to be a Canadian?” So all of a sudden, these truck drivers, meat packers, you know, foreign students who haven’t been here for as previously they had to—so all of a sudden, this whole thing has been blown open.

I think this experiment will strengthen the government’s political will to take it to the next step, which is have pathways to entry for both skilled workers and low-skilled workers. Don’t use that language; use the language of “essential skills.” And provide pathways to these people, who come in to work, to find their way as permanent citizens should they wish to.

I believe that awakening has come.

Tim Coldwell:

Let’s just wrap up with one last question. So what’s the one thing that we can all do to make more Canadians aware of the opportunity with regards to immigration?

Ratna Omidvar:

I would say look around your street. Make it personal. On my street, I live in downtown Toronto in what was called “Little Italy”—there is an immigrant story in every house. Go down your street and talk to an immigrant, and ask them about their story. That will be the first step.

Tim Coldwell:

That was the Honourable Ratna Omidvar, Senator for Ontario, and Board Member of the Century Initiative.

Thanks so much for hanging out with myself and the Senator for half-an-hour. I hope you found it as interesting to listen to, as I did. We’ve got plenty more Building Good to come, so hit the “Follow” button. And if you like what we’re doing here, leave a rating or a review, or just tell a friend about the show. It helps other people find us. And we love reading your reviews.

Building Good is a Vocal Fry Studios production. The executive producer is Jay Cockburn. Our associate producer is Kattie Laur, with production assistance from Jessica Loughlin. I’m Tim Coldwell. Thanks for listening.

[end of transcript]

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Learn more about Senator Ratna Omidvar and her priorities for change on her website.

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