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“It’s incredibly important that we come together at this time,” Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi told the conference crowd at the Hyatt, who had just finished their banquet dinners. Looking up at him were faces from Calgary and all parts of the globe — the city’s multicultural urban mix. Conference attendees hailed from all faiths too. The Intercultural Dialogue Institute, which organized the Responsible Citizens Looking to the Future event, is a liberal Muslim group intent on promoting religious harmony.

Mayor Nenshi said he started that day presiding over a big public forum about imminent plans to receive and settle 10 Syrian refugee families a day, more than a thousand Syrian refugee families altogether. Nenshi recalled how his own parents, Kurbanali Hussein and Noorjah, had emigrated from Tanzania with nothing.  They lived in a basement apartment.

“There were a total of five Ismaili Muslim families in Toronto at that time,” he said. “My mother would get up on Friday morning and wash her bedsheets by hand, and hope they dried before evening. She’d take them on the streetcar to the basement they used as a mosque, so they could cover the floors and the tables.”

Less than a year after Nenshi’s parents arrived, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin banished all the South-Asians, and those five families were inundated with a  flood of new Ismaili refugees.”We didn’t have money,” he said, “but we had opportunity. I went to great public schools, and practically lived at the library.” The family’s move to Calgary only strengthened his determination to succeed, and to give back to the society which had given him so much.

More than a million Canadians are Muslims, and they’re often hard to tell apart from the rest of the crowd on the street, because they tend to be grateful and responsible Canadian-first citizens. According to Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey, there were 1,053,945 Muslims in Canada or about 3.2 per cent of the population, making them the second largest religion after Christianity. In the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), 7.7 per cent of the population is Muslim.  For worse or for better, women wearing hijabs, niqabs, or other headware, are the most visible and vulnerable members of the group.

The IDI reaches out to other communities, through sharing information and discussion. Their events usually manage to attract very polished presenters on provocative topics. The November 19 “Looking to the Future” conference offered three panels of city and non-profit experts who presented unexpected and sometimes startling facts about important social shifts in Calgary.

Gregory Hart of Safer Calgary  moderated the opening Infrastructure Needs for the Future panel. Tom Sampson, Chief of CEMA (Calgary Emergency Management Agency) candidly discussed lessons learned from the 2013 flood, where most observers say CEMA responded superbly.  Sampson said his team had to take a few shortcuts because in an emergency situation, “You can’t move at the speed of government.”

Katherine van Kooy, of the Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations, (CCVO) said that Alberta’s social infrastructure includes 2480 non-profit organizations. The biggest sectors are sports and recreation, health care, and education, which account for the lion’s share of the 262 million volunteer hours Albertans contribute.

Social service, advocacy, and arts and culture sectors draw less than 10 per cent each. But everybody is short-handed, because volunteers are changing: they won’t or can’t make regular commitments anymore and they’re looking to use their skills in high-value work, not direct service work, like stuffing envelopes.

Don Mulligan, city Director of Transportation Planning, talked about shifting Calgarians out of their cars and onto transit. A huge new piece — which I hadn’t seen before — will be a new LRT (Light Rapid Transit)  Green Line the length of Deerfoot Trail, parallelling the city’s most heavily used expressway. Ideally, reducing Deerfoot’s passenger load should go a long way towards the city’s goal of reducing road use and carbon emissions by half.  

Julie Black of the Calgary Foundation chaired the Community and Economic Development panel. Leading off, Jim Dewald, Dean of U of Calgary’s Haskayne business school, described the three major “general purpose technologies” that have driven our economy since the 1960s — the car, electricity, and the telephone. He said that the bad news is we’ve exploited them to the hilt, with no innovations on the horizon. The good news is we probably have another 30 years to exploit  the computer technologies.

Derek Cook of Canada Without Poverty spoke movingly about wealthier Canadians’ alienation from low-income people, and from our democratic role. Our public roles have shifted in the last hundred years, he said, from citizens to consumers, and more recently to taxpayers. The word “taxpayer” implies its opposite, however, dividing the public into “givers” and “takers.”

He described how a panhandler subverted this division. When he gave her money, she said, “Wait.” She reached into her bag and gave him a granola bar. He didn’t want to take her food, but she insisted. “And in that moment, our roles were reversed,” he said. “She was the giver and I was the taker. And we were equal.”  He challenged the audience, “Let’s all become citizens again and work toward a just society where we are all deserving.”

Hunger is increasing in Calgary, said James McAra, CEO of the Calgary Food Bank, which distributed more than 16 millions pounds of food in 2014. But McAra wasn’t bragging about his numbers. He was outraged about who was going hungry.

“Forty-one per cent of our food goes to children,” he said. “Hunger hurts children all their lives. This is a defining issue for our generation….Our system punishes families that stay together. You must prove you are destitute before your children can have food. We need to talk about the health of our communities. We must rescue, prevent and offer hope.”

“Public Space and Cohesive Society” was the title of the third and final panel, chaired by author and historian Cheryl Foggo. Elza Bruk, Dean of the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement at Bow Valley College, BVC , opened with figures that pulled me up short: “We have 50,000 learners at BVC.” That’s more than University of Calgary’s 30,000 students, and probably more than the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology Polytechnic (SAIT).

BVC trains semi-skilled workers, like Practical Nurses, security guards, Teacher Assistants or Student Aides. Most of all, BVC teaches English as a Second Language, at two Calgary campuses and seven regional campuses in surrounding communities. “We have 2700 students who are Canadian, and 2000 who are permanent residents,” she said. “The rest are from 115 countries and speak 94 languages. We see diversity as an advantage.”
Janyce Konkin of Initiatives of Change, addressed the difference between integration and assimilation, the Canadian “cultural mosaic,” which honours and accepts different cultures, versus the American “melting pot,” which expects immigrants to fit in by adopting American customs.

“We focus on preserving our dominant culture, but diversity could enhance it,” she said. “Integration requires dialogue and celebrating differences.”

Wrapping up the panel, Rev Debra Faulk introduced the Calgary Metro Alliance for the Common Good, a new organization dedicated to strengthening civil society and the public’s voice in decisions that now seem to be made mainly between business and government. CMAG’s first step was to call together a new Calgary Interfaith Council.  

“I think that a paradigm shift is about to reach critical mass,” said Faulk, “that collaboration is becoming the norm.” She cited the Peterborough mosque that was torched right after the Paris attacks, in what police called a hate crime. A crowdfunding appeal for $80,000 to repair the damages, quickly raised more than that.

“We have to stop fundamentally unCanadian actions,” Mayor Nenshi said in his brief after-dinner address. He said he was worried about the intolerance he’s heard lately, as conservatives question the security of admitting refugees — conservatives like Opposition Leader Rona Ambrose, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and commentator David Frum.

“It’s incredibly important that we stand up to those voices,” said Nenshi. “We have to break into those conversations,” before they take over the discussion.

The IDI panels showed me a different view of Calgary — a view from the East side of the city that residents like to call “Sunrise communities” — which was both heartening and sobering. We never know how much we take for granted until we meet somebody who can’t do that — and even then, we have to stop and listen to each other.

Local IDIs across Canada organize formal and informal events where communities can discuss what works for them and what doesn’t. Inspired and sponsored by the Turkish Gulen movement, IDIs regularly reach out to politicans as well as to liberal clergy and non-profits, seeking to weave social relationships and strengthen civil society. And civil society faces a big challenge with the Syrian refugees arriving soon.

“Everyone at that public forum this morning had one question,” Mayor Nenshi said, “That question was, ‘How can I help?’  As Canadians, we’ve realized that we’re all in this together. When one of us fails, we all fail.”

rabble is expanding our Parliamentary Bureau and we need your help! Support us on Patreon today! 

Keep Karl on Parl

Penney Kome

Penney Kome

Award-winning journalist and author Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local (Calgary) column...