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In a highly competitive world, is diversity Canada’s advantage?

Bessma Momani is a fellow at the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation and the Centre for International Governance and Innovation, and a professor at the University of Waterloo. Jillian Stirk is a former ambassador, a mentor at the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, and an associate at the Simon Fraser University Centre for Dialogue.

We have all heard it before: Canada's diverse and multicultural society gives us a comparative advantage that leads to greater economic prosperity. It's almost intuitive, right? When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took to the stage of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January, he declared diversity a Canadian way of life and the secret to our success. But beyond the rhetoric, what is the evidence?

Research shows that diverse organizations make better decisions, and companies with diverse leadership see rewards in their bottom line. A 2015 study by McKinsey and Co., for example, shows that "companies in the top quartile for gender, racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians." A recent study by the Peterson Institute found that 22,000 companies whose executive management was gender-diverse realized 6-per-cent higher corporate earnings.

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Business leaders, both at home and abroad, tell us that the country's diverse work force makes Canada an attractive partner for investment and trade. As one executive of a high-tech company noted, "I want my team to be diverse, and I know I can get that in Canada." Research from the Conference Board of Canada shows that businesses operated by immigrant entrepreneurs are twice as likely to export outside Canada and the United States, and not necessarily to their country or region of origin.

But despite all this anecdote and evidence, it's not clear that business leaders, even in today's knowledge-based economy, truly embrace diversity of thought, experience, gender and ethno-cultural background as a key input into an innovative service or product. They understand that they must invest in science and technology, and generate ideas to create value. But is Canada taking full advantage of its rich diversity? Are we leveraging our globally connected citizens to the same extent as India, Australia or Britain?

Even though it's increasingly clear that pluralistic societies are a magnet for talent and investment, governments too often focus on reinforcing borders or on protecting local monopolies, while businesses fail to see the opportunities that come with diverse international experience. Going forward, a national strategy to realize the benefits of diversity must involve a closer look at policies on labour mobility, taxation, fast-track visas for specialized needs, international research collaboration, foreign credential recognition and bridging, and ways to expand young Canadians' opportunities to study and work abroad so they can gain vital international experience and build global connections.

With support from the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, we are taking an in-depth look at the links between pluralism and economic prosperity. Together with our partners, we are generating new academic research and consulting with business leaders, industry associations, universities and civic organizations to compile a comprehensive study of how diversity can be leveraged for greater economic advantage. We are documenting how Canadians are contributing to and benefiting from global connections, and how the growing Canadian diaspora – three million people living and working abroad – contribute to our role in an interconnected global economy.

Now, more than ever, as the discussion of global migration and diversity are increasingly polarized and scrutinized, it's time to demonstrate the economic value of having a pluralist society. A diverse work force could be the comparative advantage for us to capitalize on in a highly competitive but slow-growing global economy.

The authors invite you to join the conversation at www.pluralismcanada.ca to share your experiences.

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