The 2016 census data released this year reveals that roughly one in five Canadians are immigrants and that more than 21% of Canadians identify a non-official language as their mother tongue. How can Canadians overcome linguistic and cultural differences to find common ground and a sense of community?
“It is more important than ever for all Canadians to discuss what it means to be Canadian in an increasingly multicultural society,” says Marcus Wong, board member of the West Vancouver Police Department and board member of the North Shore Multicultural Society. “Not only do we need to understand what it means ‘to belong’ in the context of Canadian society, but also how multiculturalism has helped to define the modern Canadian identity and the modern history of Canada.”
Community access and community planning
Healthy communities are built around communication and participation. The linguistic diversity in Canadian societies raises the question of whether it is possible to form meaningful connections across all segments of a community. Rémi Léger, assistant professor of political science at Simon Fraser University, points to the importance of language accessibility. His work focuses on multiculturalism and minority rights, language policy and planning and community developments.
“Overall, I don’t believe that linguistic diversity impedes our ability to come together,” says Léger, “but it does require us to reflect on how to ensure equal access and justice in communities where sometimes large proportions of the population do not have equal abilities in English.”
A sense of belonging also depends on citizens placing their trust on community leaders. Where language is a key component of policies and services, Léger’s advice for governments is to commit to consulting linguistic communities. Leadership composition is important as well.
“We could ensure that elected officials, civil servants – people in power – reflect the cultural and linguistic makeup of the community,” says Léger. “This leads to increased citizen trust towards their political institutions.”
From museum exhibitions, to radio programs, to performances from local artists, Canada’s cultural institutions are both guides and conduits for exploring the topic of Canadian identity. Roundhouse Radio, a commercial radio with a community focus, produces several shows centred around life in Vancouver neighbourhoods. Don Schafer, co-founder and CEO, explains that the station was created to meet the community challenges raised by a 2012 Vancouver Foundations Connections and Engagement report.
“We do this in a storytelling format designed from the outset to bring our 23 neighbourhoods together,” says Schafer. “Sense of Place and This Neighbourhood Life are our best examples of where we reach deeper into community and show its richness and diversity.”
Both shows are hosted by Minelle Mahtani, who is also an associate professor of human geography and journalism at University of Toronto Scarborough. Sense of Place is a weekly show where Vancouverites share their relationship with the city.
This Neighbourhood Life is a special six-part program that looks at the Hastings-Sunrise community through the eyes of local residents. Past guests include small business owners, community leaders, and musicians. Topics range from food to creative ideas around refugee settlement and co-housing.
It is said that one’s actions shape one’s identity. Within society, volunteering and service can shape a community’s culture and collective identity. One way to engage with one’s local community is through organizations such as the Greater Vancouver Food Bank (GVFB).
Established in 1982, the GVFB provides food and services to communities in Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster and the North Shore. It aims to build communities around food in dignified, safe and respectful ways. The organization received over 75,000 volunteer hours last year and supports over 26,500 individuals weekly. Volunteers work in a variety of roles that include customer services, data entry, translator activities, inventory sorting, IT support, etc.
GVFB also offers volunteering opportunities where people can support their communities in their own language and practice using English in a social environment. “We have lots of volunteers coming from all over the world that volunteer in different opportunities at our office, warehouse and community events,” says Suzy Stanton, volunteer program coordinator at GVFB.
“One of the things that I love is finding the right fit for the volunteers and their placement with the staff,” says Stanton. “And to meet people from all over and to find out why they come and why they want to help out. Everyone has a different story.”
Besides the direct positive impact that volunteering has on a community, Wong points out that individuals themselves gain from the act of service.
“[Not] only does volunteering allow for individuals who might not normally cross paths in life to come together for a common cause,” he says, “but it also allows them an opportunity to develop qualities such as teamwork, respect, reliance, and communication in a neighbourly atmosphere.”
Building community connections takes time and effort, requiring both open discussions and action. Wong advocates a “community first” approach.
“This isn’t just my community,” he says. “This isn’t just your community. This is our community. And so, if we, as a community, truly desire to make this place we call home the best that it can be, we must – it is our moral imperative – take a ‘community first’ approach and address those important issues such as racism, prejudice, and discrimination, which can so easily divide us.”
Stanton, who also volunteers by taking her dogs to weekly pet visitations for seniors, believes in the positivity that comes from lending a hand.
“If we think that there are problems in our society that we want changed, volunteering is a way to be part of something good, part of the solution and part of what’s moving forward to improve the community,” says Stanton.
For more information on Sense of Place and Roundhouse Radio, visit www.roundhouseradio.com.
For more information on volunteering at Greater Vancouver Food Bank, visit www.foodbank.bc.ca