Migration, Cities and Universities

January 30th, 2019

By Ratna Omidvar, Independent Senator for Ontario, Senate of Canada

On August 13 2018, Senator Ratna Omidvar participated in Ryerson University’s WC2 University Network Conference as a keynote speaker and panelist with John Ralston Saul and Haroon Siddiqui as moderator. The theme of the event revolved around the role universities and cities play in promoting and influencing migration.

Here’s an excerpt from the Senator’s keynote address:

“Like many others, I believe that the future and fact of the world lies in cities – I don’t actually live entirely in local la-la land. Here are my five observations about cities and migration.

First, while immigration is a uniquely national and regional experience – people will move from China to the US or from India to Australia – the experience of inclusion and integration or the experience of exclusion and marginalization is always first a uniquely local one. This experience takes place in cities, schools, streets, buses, libraries and of course universities.

Second, we often talk about immigration and managing migration flows as national or multinational constructs. But the public trust in the governance system surrounding them is greatly determined by the ability of the government to translate the national interest into benefits that can be experienced and shared at the local level. Where people feel that national interest is riding rough shod over them, people will begin to see newcomers as a threat. And this is not an abstract conversation. It is not enough to say that immigration is good for the economy. People need to touch and feel the benefits every day.

My third observation is about the political clout of immigrants in their city. The electorate is moving in masses to cities. It may well be that it is from the local level that we are best positioned to strengthen democratic processes and institutions to combat all forms of extremism and populism. Similarly, universities are places where diverse opinions gather.  There’s a lot of cacophony and noise and disagreement as scholars zigzag between pluralism and populism. Post-secondary institutions will be the great moderators of the discourse, not towards consensus but towards lesser extremes and a more nuanced conversation.

Fourth, I believe that cities and their local institutions such as universities have an inherent advantage. It is far, far easier for cities to come together, to beg, borrow and collaborate around good ideas from each other than it is for national governments to do so. Former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg said it best: “while nations talk, cities act.” And cities have acted – on climate change, food security, plastic waste, fast food, and sex trafficking, to name just a few.

Fifth, I’m a huge believer of good ideas. Ryerson is one of the first universities in Canada to install a Vice-President for equity and inclusion. She has a mandate, staff, and an institutional backing. It was under her leadership to Ryerson hosted a few months ago a first ever conference in Canada to discuss the theme of white privilege. It’s a very difficult conversation to have in this country but it is an essential conversation. Further to this point, I think cities and local institutions can play a role in easing national pain. Vancouver is the first city that has taken a deliberate approach in closing the emotional gap between the only two segments of our population that are growing – Canada’s immigrants and Canada’s indigenous peoples and there’s this huge gap between us and we don’t talk to each other. Vancouver has taken the first small step.”


Watch the event in full:


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