Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Vancouver mayor says diversity is city's ticket to future prosperity

Mayor Gregor Robertson visiting the tomb of Dr. Norman Bethune, at the Huabei Martyrs' Cemetery, China.

By 2031, nearly 60 per cent of Vancouver residents will be visible minorities, up from 42 per cent in 2006.

Kristina Leung, editor of Canada's Top 100 Employers, says the city government's formal policies concerning diversity and equal opportunity earned it high marks in the recent survey.

"They have a really good basic structure in place," says Ms. Leung. "Advisory committees work with city council and communicate for these individual groups," including the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Story continues below advertisement

"LGBT issues are usually not as visible in diversity," says Ms. Leung. "It seems to be something a lot of employers are still not wanting to put out there."

Toronto's MediaCorp Canada Inc., which carries out the annual survey, found that Vancouver has maintained an equal employment opportunity program for nearly 40 years that includes diversity, accessibility, inclusiveness and employment equity. It also provides new staff with diversity training in four languages: Hindi, Punjabi, Chinese and Tagalog.

According to a 2010 StatsCan study, Chinese people constitute the largest minority group in Vancouver. They will make up 23 per cent of its population by 2031, up from 18 per cent in 2006.

What are the challenges of running such an ethnically diverse city? If you ask the mayor, you're more likely to hear about the opportunities.

Gregor Robertson says Vancouver's diversity doesn't just provide it with an identity and reputation for being welcoming - it's also the city's ticket to future prosperity.

What's the city doing to merge the solitudes?

We have a highly diversified work force that really does reflect the ethnic diversity of the city, right from the front line employees to upper management.

Story continues below advertisement

This is crucial, especially in Vancouver where we are all minorities now. There is a need to consistently reinforce our commitment to diversity, multiculturalism and inclusivity, and the best way to reinforce is to reflect it.

Do you do anything to enforce that diversity, or does it happen naturally?

It has happened over many years with a commitment from city council and senior staff, but there's also been a natural evolution as the city has become more diverse and the talent comes from all over the map, literally.

Anything else?

The city does a lot of communication in many different languages, and that's crucial for civic elections so people understand the options and exercise the right to vote.

We have several programs, but the two major ones are council's working group on immigration and the multicultural advisory committee. These are two key bodies that make recommendations on city policy. The immigration group looks at economic integration of newcomers and works with other levels of government to this end. Now we are looking at the issue of temporary foreign workers.

Story continues below advertisement

This group was also crucial to developing the groundbreaking Dialogues program, the only one of its kind in Canada that engages First Nations, urban aboriginals and immigrant communities together on issues that are important to the city.

Why is that important, getting all three groups together?

I guess it's about bringing the First Peoples together with the newest people. Last year was the first year and it's being run with [the University of British Columbia] There was a lot of attention around getting a working dialogue going between these groups, and we think it can be a blueprint for other cities.

There have been reports of new immigrants to Vancouver who are trained as doctors working as janitors. Is this the kind of thing the group is trying to tackle?

That is a challenge, the issue of new immigrants getting into the workforce. It's very competitive, especially if they have language barriers, and that's where we focus our support - on settlement services and mentorship programs with people who have comparable professional experience.

On the flip side, how is Vancouver's diversity an economic bonus?

Our cultural diversity is a huge economic advantage. You see that when companies like Microsoft establish themselves here due to the diverse and talented work force. We have a huge advantage with our multilingual work force, and the fact that Vancouver is a place where many cultures feel comfortable.

Vancouver has always been a really entrepreneurial city - I think the waves of immigrants have helped foster that spirit of entrepreneurialism.

How has Vancouver's ethnic diversity helped identify the city?

We've had two seismic shifts in Vancouver. One was hitting the point where over 50 per cent of residents identify something other than English as their mother tongue. The second was hosting the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. This brought so many cultures together and exposed Vancouver as one the most culturally diverse cities in the world.

How did the Olympics make a difference?

It showcased our cultural diversity to billions of TV viewers. Before that I don't think the world saw Vancouver as among the most multicultural cities of the world.

Also, First Nations groups were prominent in the hosting of [the Games]and it has catalyzed a surge of interest in our diversity and helped open up dialogue and communications between groups.

Why is that?

Our future is directly connected to waves of immigration and how newcomers connect to our city. There's no majority here any more, and that seems to be just sinking in - everyone now accepts that diversity is who we are and it's our future.

Are there any downsides to having such a diverse population?

There really aren't any. It can be a challenge to develop communications in as many languages as we have here - protocol around how many we try to include - but we're blessed. We have a good track record and positive momentum with multicultural growth and development.

As we moved toward the 50 per cent point I think the experience for Vancouver has been more harmonious. I remember seeing examples of racism and discrimination as a kid at school, being witness to it. It's not that far in our past that we had all sorts of tension between races.

Certainly some of that still exists, though.

We still have work to do. That's why the city continues to focus on diversity programs and building bridges.

What about Vancouver's gang problem? Is that perhaps a fallout of the city's widespread ethnic diversity?

The crime and gang violence doesn't take on racial undertones much here. It's spread across many races. People have speculated on that but in Vancouver there's gangs of every race - which is another story. It's unfortunate but it does exist.

If money was no object, what changes would you make to further improve race relations in Vancouver?

I'd like to see more people exercise their right to vote, especially the newest Canadians. If we could make voting more accessible and really get the full diversity of our citizens engaged in the political process starting at the voting booth, it would be a force for so much positive change in our cities.

Is there a city you think does a particularly good job of managing diversity?

Big Canadian cities like Toronto, Montreal and Calgary are magnets for newcomers and are constantly changing because of it. Canadian cities have shown themselves to be quite adaptable - in Vancouver, instead of being afraid of difference or change, we've learned how to draw on our strengths, such as having a multilingual, multicultural labour force that is very entrepreneurial.

Being an intercultural city is a good thing and I think that describes big Canadian cities. Having said that, we should always be looking at ways to be more inclusive, especially when it comes to economic integration of immigrants and newcomers.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Report an error
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.