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Building Cultural Intelligence For a More Sustainable Canada

With the rise of populism and nativism around the world, it’s more important than ever for Canadians to build more inclusive communities in this interconnected world.

With the rise of populism and nativism around the world, it’s more important than ever for Canadians to build more inclusive communities in this interconnected world.
As we approach the end of Canada’s sesquicentennial and look back on the first 150 years since Confederation, it’s safe to say that this milestone has been a wake-up call for many Canadians. This anniversary has offered us an opportunity to examine who we are as a country, and examine what’s needed to ensure that our communities will be inclusive, resilient, and sustainable for the next 150 years.

For some, Canada’s 150th has been a time to celebrate. For others, it’s been a chance to highlight the need for truth and reconciliation. It’s hard to talk about where we are going without also talking about where we have been.

Recently, at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered a sombre speech that reflected on the country’s founding. He spoke of our dark past, saying that, “For First Nations, Métis Nation, and Inuit peoples in Canada, those early colonial relationships were not about strength through diversity, or a celebration of differences. For Indigenous peoples in Canada, the experience was mostly one of humiliation, neglect, and abuse.”

Canada’s cultural narrative is rooted in multiculturalism and multilingualism, yet we know that this country is far from being inclusive—a plight felt most deeply by those who have lived on this land the longest. While Canada has at times shown itself to be a welcoming place for immigrants, migrants, and refugees, there is a long journey ahead to ensure that all people living here feel like they truly belong.

In the next twenty years this task will get even harder. The makeup of our communities is changing, and Canada will soon become even more pluralistic, multilingual, and diverse with the continued growth of visible minority, Indigenous, and newcomer populations. Statistics Canada predicts that by 2036 up to 30 percent of all residents will have been born outside of Canada; another 30 percent will speak a first language that’s neither English nor French; and 20 percent will be born in Canada, but have at least one immigrant parent. In short, the Canada of tomorrow will be very different from the Canada of today.

Acceptance is still an issue despite the country’s growing pluralism, and its introspection regarding reconciliation. Cultural intelligence, which is the measure of a person’s capacity to function in a multicultural environment, is inconsistent across the nation. Yet it’s necessary for understanding Canada’s identity, including its subcultures to which we belong. Having a high cultural intelligence, as a country and as individuals, means being fully aware of what makes us who we are, and of how our culture influences the way we work with other people.

Some have criticized the prime minister for being too inwardly focused during his speech to the General Assembly. What do our country’s failures regarding Indigenous peoples have to do with its present place in the world? But reconciliation is a core part of building Canada’s cultural intelligence, and that newly gained knowledge will help us operate effectively in unfamiliar surroundings, whether at home or abroad.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—seventeen goals that make up an ambitious agenda to end poverty, confront climate change, and reduce global inequalities by the year 2030—address many of the topics that matter most to our communities. They also provide a clear path towards a strengthened sense of belonging and a greater cultural intelligence. Prime Minister Trudeau demonstrated this by connecting the individual SDGs to the challenges that face Indigenous communities, including the need for poverty reduction, clean water and sanitation, and gender equality.

Globally, we have seen what happens when cultural intelligence comes under threat. The Brexit vote in the United Kingdom has fractured the co-operative spirit of the European Union. A political will rooted in populism and nativism has triumphed in the United States. Islamophobia is alive and well around the world. Racism endures in many insidious forms. This divisiveness is in contrast to the very concept that underpins the SDGs: Leave no one behind.

Whether we like it or not, this concept is integral to Canadians living in an era of globalization. If there’s a refugee crisis in Syria, an earthquake in Mexico, or an epidemic anywhere, the impact is felt in our communities. We are not socially, culturally, or economically isolated. What happens abroad finds its way home.

As the prime minister reminded us in his recent UNGA speech, Canada is a “work in progress.” Over the next 150 years, our country’s great experiment will be put to the test. It’s our job to respond with the kind of empathy and leadership that’s needed in this global age. We can do this by committing to the SDGs and building our collective cultural intelligence. The livelihood of our future depends on it.

       —   Andrew Chunilall, CEO, Community Foundations of Canada

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