MLA Ravi Kahlon embraces interculturalism to promote understanding and appreciation for Indigenous history

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      Shortly after Ravi Kahlon was appointed as the NDP government's parliamentary secretary for sport and multiculturalism, he attended an event with the local Burundian community.

      A bhangra group that traced its roots back to Punjab shared drummers with a troupe from the small East African nation.

      "They had two drummers performing together," Kahlon recalled in an interview with the Georgia Straight. "Then they did a complete set of performing together where they would go from Burundi dance to bhangra to Burundi dance to bhangra.

      "It was amazing—what it did for me is to highlight that our diversity is our strength," the Delta North NDP MLA continued. "But we also have a strength when we come together and celebrate together and find things that we have in common."

      Kahlon, a former Canadian Olympic field hockey star, has given a great deal of thought to what multiculturalism should look like in the 21st century.

      His biggest critique of the B.C. Liberal government approach over 16 years is that it "reinforced silos" within communities.

      Kahlon said this "quick-wins" approach led to a mindset in which the government gave communities money to go off and hold celebrations on their own.

      According to him, many times the government didn't have any real understanding of how diverse these communities really are, and didn't do much to build bridges between them.

      "It's something I'm really keen on—this idea of interculturalism—where communities are partnering and finding things that they have in common with other communities," Kahlon said.

      Interculturalism promotes cross-cultural dialogue and attempts to break down self-segregation within communities. The term is commonly used in Quebec, first showing up in government documents in the 1990s, according to a 2011 Globe and Mail article.

      To advance Kahlon's goal of promoting more cross-cultural understanding, the government has named a diverse group of activists, some with NDP ties, to the Multicultural Advisory Council of B.C.

      Most of the members are Vancouver residents and several are relatively young, bringing a millennial perspective.

      The council is chaired by Naveen Girn, a cultural historian and director of community relations for Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson.

      Vancouver architect, author, environmental activist, and former Green candidate David H.T. Wong is also on the council. In the past, he's been honoured by several First Nations for his efforts to promote reconciliation.

      Another Vancouver member is Amir Bajehkian, an Iranian-Canadian activist and outspoken advocate for greater cross-cultural communication.

      Queer Pinay activist Melanie Matining, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver vice president and Langara instructor Shelley Rivkin, UBC organizational-diversity strategist Tracy Wideman, and the academic director of the Indigenous Community Legal Clinic at UBC, Patricia Barkaskas, are some of the other Vancouver members on the council.

      Former Green candidate David H.T. Wong (seen with elder Stella August) is one of the members of the Multicultural Advisory Committee of B.C.
      Charlie Smith

      The youngest member, Hana Woldeyes, is a recent East Vancouver high school graduate and refugee from Ethiopia. 

      "She now teaches teachers on how to deal with children who are refugees when they come into the school system," Kahlon said.

      He's particularly pleased that there's First Nations representation on the council because there's a long history of immigrant communities working with Indigenous peoples in this region when both were being subjected to brutal racism.

      One of Kahlon's priorities is helping new immigrants learn more about this history of coming together, which Wong and Girn, in particular, have focused a great deal of attention on. And Kahlon expressed gratitude that Barkaskas has agreed to join the council to help facilitate this.

      "Why not learn about it early on as opposed to having these biases being put on them [new immigrants]?" he said.

      Kahlon emphasized that the focus on interculturalism needs to be supported in tangible ways by modifying the granting system to support groups doing this work and building bridges with First Nations.

      In his interview with the Straight, Kahlon did not use the word intersectionality, which is a framework of thinking that addresses how interlocking power systems can have an impact on marginalized communities. But it's clear that he believes communities should be encouraged to learn from one another and build stronger connections.

      He also revealed that Premier John Horgan has given the council the green light to look at ways to break down "structural racism".

      "It's easy to do the comfortable stuff," Kahlon acknowledged. "It's harder to get deeper into it because it's scary. So certainly, antiracism and anti-hate will be a lens that this council has."

      Another thorny issue is the propensity of provincial professional licensing bodies to refuse to recognize foreign educational credentials. Kahlon recently recommended in a report to Attorney General David Eby that the soon-to-be-created human rights commission focus on this issue.

      "I think certainly it's something that needs to be addressed," Kahlon said. "It was raised at our first meeting. I don't want to rule anything out."

      He has a personal connection to this issue because his father was a very well-educated Sikh immigrant who wasn't allowed to practise law in B.C.

      According to Kahlon, his father was also told that he couldn't get a job unless he cut his hair and stopped wearing a turban. His mother also faced some very tough times.

      "They realized quickly along the way that this life was not going to be for them—it was going to be for their kids," he said. "Those are the things that drive me."