MOSAIC Annual General Meeting Address

September 27, 2012

Keynote Address at MOSAIC AGM

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor

Van Dusen Gardens

Good evening.  I’m pleased to join you for your AGM and honoured to have been invited to speak, especially given our organizations have so many shared interests.

That, in large part, is what I want to talk to you about this evening – shared interests.  I want to focus on how we as individuals, groups and communities can make the most of our own situation even as we help others, near and far, to make the most of theirs.  I will also touch on what we as a province need to do to foster a vibrant, healthy British Columbia with a strong, dynamic economy.  
Those of you familiar with SFU’s new Strategic Vision will not be surprised to hear me say that the place to start, in my view, is with a strategy of “engagement” – one that builds capacity by forging relationships and creating alliances … by working together.

We launched that Vision this past spring, after conducting one of the most extensive consultations ever undertaken by a Canadian university. During that consultation, we asked our students, faculty and staff, as well as our alumni, stakeholders and interested citizens, to tell us what they liked best about SFU – and how we could make it even better.

The answer we got back was remarkably consistent.  People said that they most valued SFU’s special energy, its openness and its willingness to “engage” – with its students, in its research, and especially in its relationships with the communities it serves.

As a consequence, we made it a key goal of our Vision to build on that strength – to become “Canada’s most community-engaged research university.”  And we committed through our new tagline to “Engaging the World”.

I think that Vision dovetails nicely with MOSAIC’s Vision of “a Canada that welcomes and empowers immigrants, refugees and newcomers.” This too is a strategy of engagement.

Yours is a program that is designed to reach out – to establish the necessary and opportune connections amongst new Canadians and the organizations, institutions and community members who can help them to succeed.  Within the immigrant community, it is a strategy to build social cohesion even as it respects and protects cultural diversity.

It also recognizes – and seeks to enhance – the incredible value that immigrants bring to our diverse, innovative and increasingly well-connected economy.  In short, it appreciates the value of internationalization.

That, too, is a central focus of our mission as an “engaged university.” We recognize, for example, that post-secondary educational institutions serve increasingly as the point of entry for Canadian immigrants.  International students come to Canada to study, and very often stay, establishing homes and families even as they enrich and diversify Canadian society … and its economy.

We have a series of programs that aid and support international students, whether they come to Canada to stay or simply to get an excellent education and return home – with a host of new relationships and connections gained while they were here.

For example, we have an agreement with the Fraser International College that allows students to transition into second year at SFU after spending a first year preparing and acclimatizing at FIC.

Since negotiating this agreement in 2006, our student diversity has increased significantly. We have received 1500 new students from countries such as Zimbabwe, Zambia, Nigeria, Pakistan, India, Vietnam, Russia and Kazakhstan.

SFU is also committed to international engagement on the research front.  For example, we co-host Metropolis British Columbia, a Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Diversity.

We also launched an Engaging Diaspora initiative last year. This was a five-part series of lectures and dialogues, funded by CIDA and conducted in partnership with CUSO and the BC Council for International Education.  The program was so successful and so influential that it has given rise to a proposal for an SFU Institute for Diaspora Research and Engagement.

It’s an interesting word: “diaspora.” There was a time when it was almost always spoken in sadness, because it so often referred to people who had been forced to disperse – who had been victimized at home and not always welcomed abroad.

Think of the Jews who were chased first from Israel and then forced to flee, if they could, from much of Europe. Think of South Asians who were forced from Uganda in the early 1970s, or of the ethnic Chinese who fled Vietnam in the late ‘70s and ‘80s.

In recent decades, we thankfully have come to a new understanding of the strength and power of diaspora.  We now realize two things: first, we understand that our own society and economy are strengthened immeasurably by the diversity of our population.

Second, rather than being a synonym for the dispossessed, diaspora now refers optimistically to individuals and groups whose attachment to two or more locations, within and across national boundaries, is expressed through their activities and networks.

By this definition, members of diaspora are additionally connected: they are engaged both here in Canada and also in the countries from which they emigrated.  And those connections are seen as valuable on many levels.

If you live in Vancouver, and want to gain greater understanding of people from a distant land, you can probably find representatives of those people within your own community.  SFU itself is a veritable United Nations: 18.2% of our student population is now international. That is one of the highest ratios of any university in Canada and, again, is a reflection of our commitment to “engaging the world.”

We also have our own diaspora. Almost 7,000 of our 120,000 alumni live abroad – in a total of 130 countries around the globe.

And then there’s the incredible diversity of our “domestic” student population – of the first and second generation Canadians who trace their ancestry to the far corners of the world. Strolling across our campus, you are likely to hear as many languages being spoken as you would walking through Heathrow Airport.

Diasporan knowledge and intercultural engagement also have tremendous economic value.  In a world in which global trade is increasingly important, it’s a huge market advantage to have cultural ambassadors in our midst to help us gain understanding and make key connections.  Canada’s burgeoning trade with China and India is no accident.  Many of the trade linkages being formed are based on longstanding relationships.

I said at the outset that MOSAIC and SFU have many shared interests.  I could also argue that we have a shared sense of purpose.  At heart, we are both capacity-building organizations.

You help individuals connect in Canada.  You help them engage – and in doing so, you help them achieve their full potential. That, in turn, helps Canada.  It helps the neighbourhoods and communities where those productive new members are building their lives – where they are contributing skills, starting businesses, spurring Canadian innovation and raising children who will be the enthusiastic citizen-leaders of a new generation.

We, in turn, seek to ensure that young Canadians – and future Canadians – gain the education they need to succeed in an increasingly complex and competitive global economy.  

So let me conclude my remarks by picking up on that theme and taking a few moments to talk about how we can help young people in our province to succeed – about the steps we can take to help young people to gain the education they need to realize their dreams.

Because you know, as I know, that post-secondary education is the key to unlocking their potential.  It’s the ladder of opportunity to a better life, and the foundation for a stronger, more inclusive society.

For generations, this basic truth about education has been central to the immigrant experience in this country.  I see that every day when I speak with students on campus who come from first, second and third generation Canadian families.

The extraordinary value these students and their families place on education reminds me time and again of how lucky we are to live in a country where a university or college degree is within reach of so many.  It’s an incredible gift and something we should never take for granted.

That’s truer today than ever before. Let me just give you one quick statistic that explains why: by 2020, 80 per cent of all new jobs in BC will require a post-secondary degree. Eighty per cent!

What does that mean?  Quite simply, it means we are going to have to educate a lot more British Columbians.  And to do that, we have to address some significant challenges – head on. Let me point to just three.

Right now, SFU and other BC universities are having to turn away qualified undergraduate and graduate students due to a lack of funded spaces.  We are doing our best, but the situation is not sustainable.  

So as a first step, let’s make this commitment:  If our daughters and sons work hard and get good grades, there should be a space for them in a post-secondary institution.

I think that’s a worthy goal.  So that’s the first challenge.  Here’s a second one: I know how hard parents and students work to afford a university degree.  At SFU, many students head to classes after a job – or head to a job after classes.

But, even for those who work while they study, many students leave university with record levels of debt. Others don’t apply for fear that they or their parents can’t afford it. Why?  One reason is that BC doesn’t have the undergraduate grants or graduate scholarships provided by some other provinces. That’s not good for our youth, and it’s not good for our economy.
So let’s offer this guarantee: let’s ensure that it is possible for every qualified student in BC to attend a university, college, or institute regardless of financial circumstances.

And finally, in today’s economy, ideas drive growth.  That, after all, is why it’s called a “knowledge economy.”  And good ideas don’t just happen; they’re a result of good research. It isn’t always apparent, but many of our new jobs and industries come right out of the laboratories and libraries at BC’s universities.

But the world isn’t standing still and neither can we.  Many of today’s jobs may not be there tomorrow; and many of tomorrow’s jobs have yet to be invented.  To compete in the global economy, we have to stay ahead of the curve.  So let’s make a commitment to innovation and new jobs by supporting cutting-edge, home-grown research.

Three challenges, three commitments.

1.    A space for every qualified BC student;
2.    A guarantee for students in need; and
3.    A commitment to innovation and jobs.

If all of us work together to achieve these goals, then I believe we will have fulfilled our commitment to tomorrow’s generation of British Columbians.  A commitment to opening up the educational doors and opportunities they require to make the most of their lives and to fulfil their dreams.  A commitment to giving them the knowledge and tools our Province requires to remain vibrant and competitive in the years ahead.

That’s what MOSAIC does every day helping new Canadians to become part of – and to contribute towards – a healthy and dynamic society. And it’s what we can all aspire to do by ensuring that young British Columbians are prepared for the challenges of tomorrow.

Thank you again for the invitation to speak this evening.  And thank you also for the inspirational leadership and collaborative spirit that MOSAIC has shown in all that you do – and in all that we must continue to do together.