One of the most recent examples, personally, of the inability of certain individuals in Durham Region to deal with and understand diversity took place while I was waiting with my then teenaged son to be interviewed for a position with the Durham Regional Police Leadership program. There were a few of us— parents and their teenaged kids— sitting around benches in the lobby waiting our kids’ turn to be called in. It was early in the morning and a very nice police officer came around the lobby asking some of the parents if they wanted coffee or something and chatting and jovially joking with all of them. All of them except two of us, I should say: the family where the mom was wearing a headscarf and myself. He didn’t even give us a quick look to acknowledge our presence. Did the officer think we didn’t speak English? Did he think we didn’t drink coffee? Were we intentionally ignored? I should’ve asked there and then why we went completely unnoticed and not offered…but I didn’t want to ruin my child’s chances of getting the job.

Diversity in many circles has become almost a 4-letter word. Some welcome it with open arms and some see it as a threat to the status quo. I won’t even bother to mention who the champion of the latter movement is right now. So I was quite pleasantly surprised when I got an invitation to attend the Town of Ajax first ever “Diversity and Inclusion Conference: Embracing Diversity, Engaging Our Community”. I was even more pleasantly surprised as the day developed and I (amongst a packed-to-the-rim house) had the opportunity to hear the magnificent speakers the organizers chose for the occasion.

Tracey Vaughan-Barrett, the Town of Ajax Director of Recreation and Culture said a few words to open the event. Ajax Mayor Steve Parish reminded audience members that Diversity is the foundation, the backbone and the basis of any community— a fact made more poignant given how the town has welcomed the influx of diverse populations in the last years and has even put plans in place (such as the “Diversity & Community Engagement Plan”) to make sure the process happens in a positive, inclusive and engaging manner. “You have two choices”, said Mayor Parish. “You can choose to wait and react to the changes or you can see them coming and be proactive in welcoming these communities.”

The keynote speaker, Michael Bach, Executive Director of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion, grabbed the audience’s attention from the get-go with his humour, but even more so with some cold hard truths regarding diverse communities and the challenges they experience. Bach spoke at length about the “Bobs” in Canada. Bobs, or Canadian White Straight Males, represent 14.5% of the population yet they hold 85% of all positions of power in our society. The immigrant population continues to grow steadily in Canada (numbers also reflected in Durham Region’s population and ethnic makeup growth) and Bach wondered, can a person who is not of Caucasian descent succeed here? Are there no biases in place? Can they move to this town and live in harmony? Do we have the elements in place (settlement services, for instance) for these large numbers of people to integrate seamlessly in Durham Region? He spoke about not tolerating— a phrase he says he despises because it’s like you hold your nose for a moment waiting for the stench to pass— and spoke instead of understanding, appreciating and valuing each other as human beings.

Bach also touched on disability and how we may be bothered with the fact that able-bodied people have to make “special” accommodations for people who live with a disability. “Did any of you bring a chair to this event?,” he asked. “Every day of our lives we make accommodations for everyone.” He also touched on how we as humans “are naturally drawn to people who are like us because it’s easy.” He urged participants to “make a conscious effort to make friends with people who are different from you.” The basis of respect, he said, is “recognizing that we are all different people, that we are the sums of our parts. I don’t want to be tolerated. I want to be respected.”

Attendees were then broken out into different discussion groups. Dr. Andrew B. Campbell led a very lively and buoyant (yet interlaced with some staggering and sobering facts) discussion on “Diversity Leadership”. Laureen (Blu) Waters led the discussion on “Understanding Aboriginal Issues” and last but not least York University Assistant Professor at the School of Social Work Mary Goitom led a highly interactive (and at points contentious) session on “Exploring Race and Culture” and the day ended with a Diversity Cafe & Presentation of the Town of Ajax. The event also included the poignant participation of Spoken Word artist Nabeel Hasnain, with an affecting interpretation of his poem “I am Sorry Mother”.

This worthwhile effort on the part of the Town of Ajax is to be applauded. Hopefully more Durham Region municipalities emulate this effort and get on with becoming more active in their inclusion of visible minorities, drawing more participation and involvement from their growing diverse communities. Hopefully these efforts are not just information transmitted from the top down, where members of the immigrant communities that get involved in city and region-led efforts are not just token participants to showcase how “diverse” some of these committees and groups are, but they become decision-makers whose voices are heard and whose opinions, points of view, input and life experiences are fully valued and taken into consideration. And maybe, just maybe, when members of these diverse communities are waiting in a lobby to be attended, they get offered a cup of coffee.