Tahmena Bokhari, social worker and diversity specialist, speaks at a diversity forum in Vaughan, Ontario in Canada. Canada claims a distinction with its ‘multicultural mosiac’ opposing the U.S. ‘melting pot’. Ms. Bokhari believes that it is at the municipal level of any country where one can clearly see the definitions of mainstream culture play out. “It’s where most of the action is and where the government has a direct relationship with residents.” She started the evening by discussing the importance of community involvement. She thanked the attendees for getting connected to the issues, however she asked the audience to consider, “Who is not here and why?”.
The event was the third of its kind in Vaughan, held on March 25th and organized by the City’s Community Diversity and Equity Committee. The Committee is chaired by Thornhill Councillor Alan Shefman. The Chair and Vice-Chair and other committee members also spoke and ran small groups to get input from the community. Bokhari proudly noted of the Committee's work that this is a really good start and is all an initiative by dedicated volunteers. The event was just a few days after March 21st, the International Day for the Elimination of Racism and Discrimination. This is all in a current climate where public organizations are having to abide by province-wide mandatory work on accomodating for people’s with disabilities, Canada’s ageing population, and a nation solely dependent on immigrants for any growth in the labour force. As urban sprawl is catching up and the population of Vaughan is set to double over the next couple of decades, Bokhari says that, “we better be prepared, the diversity is coming.”
Bokhari, a long time advocate and expert in diversity asserted that we must expand our definition of diversity from ethno-racial identity to all forms of diversity including disability, age, gender, and sexual diversity. Bokhari says that we should not be reinventing the wheel, but we can certainly improve it. “Far too often we equate diversity initiatives with multiculturalism, but we must go further than that. We have a chance to learn from other cities as well as decades worth of research and writing on diversity in Canada.” She further went on to say that cultural festivals are a good start, but not the solution to more serious issues such as glass ceilings, discrimination and hate crimes.
Although she is a Canadian citizen by birth right, Bokhari explains that her Pakistani and Muslim heritages somehow made her less Canadian in the eyes of many in the mainstream society. “I am as Canadian as any one else, we are a nation built on immigrants. From the Aboriginal peoples and the European colonizers and founding fathers, to recent immigrants from South Asia, we all have a stake in making and shaping ‘Canadian’ society and not just a small sub-culture.”
March was also a significant month for Pakistanis around the world, with the 23rd being Pakistan Resolution Day and marking the beginning of independence. The Canadian government, Bokhari indicates, estimates there are over 300, 000 Canadians who claim Pakistan as their country of origin. “We do often get lumped in under the category of South Asian, but there is diversity within diversity, and we must recognize that in Canada.”
Saima Wahed is a college student who has heard Bokhari speak on issues of diversity and says that Bokhari’s message particularly speaks to her. “I know what it is like to grow up not feeling fully Canadian and questioning your own identity. As a youth, I am inspired by people like Ms. Bokhari.”
Bokhari has worked around the world with diverse populations on issues of social justice and she says that she has had the privilege of acting in the role of a pseudo-ambassador for Canada. “As Canadians, we have a wonderful reputation around the world and we have an obligation to live up to it by taking leadership as a land of immigrants. We must demonstrate to the world how to live and breathe inclusivity.”
Wahed indicated that often people mistake her for being Indian and do not understand Pakistani culture very well. “Once I explain, I am then called South Asian, which is fine, but when people think South Asia they think India. Pakistanis also need to create their mark.”
Bokhari indicates that identity development is a key factor in youth playing strong roles in shaping mainstream society. “You have to see people who look like you, you have to see yourself reflected in the mainstream culture in order to feel a part of it.”
Wahed, who wants to persue a law degree, says that “westerners think of India as a perfect democratic and diverse state, but India has tons of problems. There is class and caste discrimination, those born into certain castes will never enjoy the life of those in upper castes, Muslims are discriminated, there is such extreme poverty, overpopulation means child labour, people working for mere pennies and other social problems.” She wonders, “Why would a first world nation like Canada look to India as a model?”
Bokhari indicates that we can learn from various communities around the world because Canadian citizens have footprints in many countries. “We can lead the world because we represent the world in our citizens."
Earlier in the week, Ms. Bokhari attended another event in Vaughan, ON which was meant for municipalities to look at issues of anti-racism. It was held by the Canadian Coalition for Municipalities Against Racism and Discrimination, supported by the Ontario Human Rights Commission and driven by UNESCO, a United Nations agency. Speakers included Vaughan’s Councillor Shefman, along with staff from municipalities across the country. “I am proud that Vaughan was the first municipality in the Region of York to join this coalition”, says Bokhari. However, she is interested to know about all the other cities around the world who have joined.
Bokhari lectures on diversity and discusses the importance of understanding equity as oppose to equality. She says, “we must get our heads around the idea of treating different people differently in order to achieve social justice and equitable outcomes.” This would mean making city services accessible to the hearing impaired, deaf and blind communities, ensuring language is simple on signage, creative and new outreach methods to ensure everyone in the community is in the loop, and multilingual services. In addition, there is the issue of inclusivity vs diversity, wherein Bokhari stresses we must ask if all the communities that make up our “Canadian mosaic” are all truly included in the centre of civic activities.
With all the debates surrounding this issue, Ms. Bokhari remains optimistic. “With all the work ahead of us, I am still very confident that we as diverse and talented people can do it!” She hopes to continue to raise awareness and work in the community on these and other important social causes.