Douglas Todd: The 'diversity' beat is full of surprises, often conservative

Opinion: Anyone who writes about diversity has a lot to learn about other cultures, many of which are Eastern, more collectivist, poorer and often quite conservative.

For diversity writer Douglas Todd, learning about many cultures has been key to his beat.

“Migration, diversity and spirituality writer.” That’s how my signature block describes my beat specialties.

The “diversity” tag draws some funny reactions. I once went on a radio talk show where the host joked about it. To him “diversity writer” sounded like liberal-virtue signalling — conjuring up the dream of people of diverse creeds and colours sitting around campfires singing Kumbaya in mutual harmony.

While I quite like the song Kumbaya, as well as the ideal of intercultural harmony, covering the diversity beat for decades has led to the discovery of scores of surprising ethno-religious realities. The diversity beat offers a great journalistic ride for anyone who is curious, since, after all, the word diversity means “a range of different things.”

I have appreciated being exposed to that sometimes startling range of things while probing Iranian immigrants, Sons of Freedom Doukhobors, Sikhs, Roman Catholics, Filipino caregivers, Hong Kong activists, First Nations residential-school survivors, Chinese Traditional Medicine practitioners, bomb-shelter-building members of the Church Universal and Triumphant, “Muslim atheists,” and more.

While many who like to talk about “celebrating diversity” are often on the liberal end of the spectrum, one of the more striking things to discover has been that most of the religio-cultural groups I have covered in Canada and around the world are socially conservative.

While they sometimes talk about racial discrimination, they’re more likely to stress their faith in Mohammed, Jesus, Amitabha Buddha or Guru Nanak, stand up for marriage (including arranged ones), be wary of abortion, condemn illicit drug use and urge their children to obtain degrees in engineering, computing and business.

Covering world religions I’ve been introduced to how Canada’s 1.1 million Muslims hail from more than 80 ethnic groups, that most Metro Vancouver Catholics are people of colour, that evangelical congregations have an unusually high proportion of Black Canadians and that supernaturally inclined Asian Buddhists far outnumber more in-vogue white Buddhists, like therapists Jack Kornfield and Pema Chodron.

Exploring diversity among religiously devout people naturally led to examining ethnic groups themselves, whether wealthy East Asian transnationals, persecuted Pakistani-Canadian filmmakers or war-ravaged Syrian refugees.

(For this article, we’ll set aside the fascinating exploration of “diversity” related to gender or sexual orientation.)

Of course, as the phrase “unity in diversity” suggests, many people around the world share some values. But I’m grateful to UBC social psychologists Ara Norenzayan et al for reminding me I’m actually among the “WEIRD” ones who get most of the media attention — the western, educated, individualistic, rich and democratic.

In others words, people like me have a lot to learn about “other” cultures, many of which are Eastern, more collectivist, poorer, less egalitarian and in many cases quite conservative.

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One of my guidelines for covering different groups has been demographics — portioning out articles based on each group’s size in Canada and Metro Vancouver. That has meant placing an extra focus on Canada’s three largest minority groups: South Asians, ethnic Chinese and Indigenous people.

South Asians

It’s been to privilege to spend time with multi-generational families living in one house, which are common among Canada’s two million South Asians. While some South Asians in Canada are resisting the tradition of marrying within their ethnic or religious group, many parents still stress it for their children.

It’s been fascinating to have it explained why Sikhs punch above their weight in Canadian politics. And to realize, while the media gives most prominence to anti-racism activists, others, like former B.C. premier Ujjal Dosanjh, have lamented how white politicians are being silenced by political correctness.

It’s also satisfying to hear many Punjabis appreciate my articles about corrupt immigration consultants and to learn from Vivintel’s surveys that The Vancouver Sun is the most popular English-language newspaper among South Asians in the region, read by 35 per cent.

Ethnic Chinese

At the same time as Lunar New Year and other expressions of Chinese culture have become popular in Canada’s big cities, everyone talks about the housing market. And while all kinds of people have contributed to the costly real estate of Vancouver and Toronto, the ethnic Chinese angle has received extra attention because of the tremendous wealth being transferred out of Communist China.

The B.C. NDP have responded to the trans-national transfer of Asian capital into housing by boldly bringing in foreign buyers and anti-speculation taxes: And some of the taxes’ strongest supporters are housing-affordability activists who belong to Canada’s wide-ranging 1.8-million ethnic Chinese population.


My exploration of diversity took root in the late 1980s when I headed out of town to do scores of stories about sex abuse at B.C.’s church-run residential schools for Indigenous people, of which there are now 1.7 million.

Along with the honour of spending time among the Nisga’a, Dene and Tsawwassen learning about self-government, I’ve been reminded repeatedly that most of Canada’s Indigenous people blend traditional Indigenous spirituality with orthodox Christianity.

As for other large cultural groups in Canada, I hasten to add how fascinating it’s been to meet Filipino Catholics who both admire and fear Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ strongman. It’s also been disturbing to be told many Iranian-Canadians remain worried that they are being monitored by spies from their theocratic homeland.

There is an unlimited range of things to learn and enjoy on the diversity beat, which has enabled me to develop many trusted sources among Muslims, Sikhs, evangelicals, Iranians, Buddhists, Filipinos, ethnic Chinese and Mormons.

And lately I’ve realized this last group, Mormons, make an especially good test case for Canadians.

While I share politicians’ concerns about countering bigotry and Islamophobia — to avoid stereotyping Muslims, for instance, for being conservative about such things as alcohol and the role of women — I’ve come to wonder why that same value is often not extended to Mormons.

Mormons are not considered cool. They’re joked about and even mocked. But the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints is not any more idiosyncratic than many other faiths — and it’s arguably less conservative.

There’s nothing wrong with disagreeing with practices in other cultures or religions. But since Canadians like to talk about how much they respect diversity, it wouldn’t hurt to be more consistent about it.

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