A critical look at diversity and inclusion in Alberta's social innovation efforts: Part 1 - Historical Considerations

By Soni Dasmohapatra

Being involved in design and innovation projects over the past six years as a woman of colour, I have had to be brave. I have had to speak truth to power by challenging and dismantling status quo thinking in the design process. This has created disruption. This has been my experience in every design space I have entered. I cause this disruption in hopes to encourage the consideration of empathy so co -designers can come to embrace or understand a different perspective.

If I had a super-power it would be the ability to work with diverse individuals to critically examine power structures in order to name unconscious or conscious bias. My goal in creating disruption is to expose and deconstruct the processes that continue to exclude and oppress different segments of our society. 

My name is Soni Dasmohapatra and this blog post is the first of a three-part series I’m offering to Alberta’s social innovation community. My aim is to  provide considerations and good practices that support the implementation of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility (IDEA)* in social innovation development. In this first post, I set the stage for practitioners to reflect on historical realities that shape societal structures today.

Social Innovation Impacting Social Change

What is the dominant narrative that generations of social innovators will know and learn? Who has written and will write the historical and contemporary Alberta social innovation narrative? Are there checks and balances in place to ensure that this narrative is inclusive, or is there a danger of an exclusionary narrative being written that will leave people behind? 

When we are designing new solutions to the problems in our communities, there must be an identification of who holds the power to decide which truth and story to tell. Critical thinking has to be implemented to identify whether this power been shared to include those voices not included/ considered. 

As design practitioners we should ask if we’ve made explicit efforts to create time, identify good practices, and plan social innovation strategies which critically identify the unconscious biases that could occur in process development, prototype design and implementation of innovation. It is our ethical duty to unpack our own biases and be reflective in each stage of design.

The critical question at the centre of creating equitable design processes is to constantly identify who holds power and privilege in the process. In order to understand where the starting point is in creating social innovation projects that impact social change, it is important to understand our history, and the impacts of colonization in Alberta. 


As Albertans who are invested in creating inclusive spaces for social innovation and human-centred design, what is our commitment to unpacking historical narratives that have shaped Alberta’s current social, political, legal, cultural, and economic realities?

As part of my learnings I had the opportunity to work with my nine year old son to create an alternative Alberta history lesson to share with his grade four class for the Alberta unit they are studying as part of social studies curriculum.

My son and I researched and came to the conclusion that the historical narratives of exclusion in Canada’s and Alberta’s history are not common knowledge.  As a woman of colour born and raised in Alberta, I have come to realize that the lack of understanding of Canada’s historical origins continues to create systemic and structural barriers that prevent the realization of equity, diversity, accessibility and inclusion in Alberta social innovation spaces today. 

I am not an Indigenous person nor an Indigenous scholar; however, as a person who was born and raised in Canada it is important for me to understand the history of this land. The history of Turtle Island is rich and deep, in existence long before the “New World” was discovered by European colonizers. Turtle Island has been built by and is home to thriving Indigenous communities who have sophisticated systems of social, cultural, legal and economic ways of being. In my experience, this narrative is often missing from Canadian history books, especially those used in the school system, and from our contemporary understanding of Alberta. 

Instead, the historical narrative I am most familiar with is a victory that emerged out of colonial conquest and was divided between the European nations of France and Britain. In 1867 Canada became a nation, a country. This event becomes the memory that supersedes all political, economic, social, and cultural systems before this time.

In 1876  the “Indian Act” was implemented. This act prohibited Indigenous Peoples from living on their land, implementing their legal systems, practicing their cultural and spiritual traditions, and speaking and nurturing the many Indigenous languages that originated on Turtle Island. The Indian Act has impacted all Canadians and Indigenous Peoples in the past, present and will continue into the future.

At the time of the Indian Act, Canada was on a mission to be mandated as “White Canada Forever”. This is documented in Canadian archival footage shared in Ali Kazimi’s 2004 film “Continuous Journey”.   Canada’s founding fathers were on a mission to build the country. They intended to do this by opening immigration to the nation, but only to the white British population that would contribute to the vision of a “white Canada forever”.

There were explicit Federal Immigration Laws put in place to prevent immigration and settlement in Canadian cities and provinces like Edmonton and Alberta for various communities of colour. Laws such as Chinese Head Tax, Continuous Journey Regulation and Order in Council ‘1911-1324’, “which gave the power for Canadian Immigration agents to build a concerted campaign to block black settlement in Canada,” are examples of how Canada’s nation-building excluded many communities of colour who were ready to contribute building a diverse heritage narrative (to learn more, visit www.pier21.ca).

Let us remember that white women in Edmonton were granted the right to vote in 1917. People of colour, both men and women, were granted the right to vote in 1948. Indigenous Peoples were given the right to vote in 1960.

How many Albertans know:

  • Amber Valley was a community of peoples of African Descent that settled just outside of Edmonton in the early 1900’s,

  • The first person from India to settle in Edmonton was in 1907,

  • Chinatowns were established in Alberta in the late 1800’s, and

  • The first Mosque built in Canada was built in Alberta in the 1930’s (see the header image for this blog post, courtesy of the South Asian Canadian Heritage website).

Between 1920-1911, about 1500 Black Americans came to the Canadian prairies from the United States. Many of them settled in Amber Valley, Alberta.  Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 .

Between 1920-1911, about 1500 Black Americans came to the Canadian prairies from the United States. Many of them settled in Amber Valley, Alberta. Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.

Lem's restaurant High River Alberta, Pre 1911.  Glenbow Museum and Archives

Lem's restaurant High River Alberta, Pre 1911. Glenbow Museum and Archives

Disruption to move social innovation 

Being a disruptor is dangerous. The tension which arises from identifying inequity is emotionally and spiritually taxing for those comfortable with the status quo to unpack. As Canadians we are polite and politically correct, and our collective psyche is offended when we are called out as being racist or homophobic, or for having legislation and policies that create structural barriers that promote inequity. As part of this process the disruptor is labeled as being the problem, not the system that we live in.  A person who challenges group-think is not everyone’s favorite person. It is difficult to identify and find points of entry to name structural barriers. 

In design processes, sometimes this tension is received well and commitments are made to move through this challenge and emerge with unexpected outcomes. Other times, the tension is shut down due to discomfort. There are instances when group mistrust prevails and the process does not move forward but ends. Sometimes there is more power residing with one type of group, who takes over as they are seen as “experts” in design. This last example recreates experiences of exclusion and does little to promote the actualization of diversity, inclusion, equity and accessibility.

To end this post, I offer a series of questions that you can ask to name if the social innovation solution or process you are creating is truly ensuring that inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility are being realized.

  • Who is being included or excluded to develop the narratives that shape Alberta’s social innovations moving forward?

  • How does this influence who is part of organizational decision making, documentation, and knowledge transfer?

  • How does Alberta’s Social Innovation sector define community voice?

  • Which community voices are validated, respected and documented, and which ones are not heard? Why?

Stay tuned for my next post, which will further examine the impact of inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility (IDEA) in Alberta social innovations. 

*Here’s what I mean when I talk about IDEA (the following definitions are taken / adapted from the Edmonton Community Foundation’s equity audit and Accessibility Ontario):

  • Equity: Refers to the rights of individuals and groups to a fair access to resources and outcomes. Equity work analyses and challenges unfair systems and practices and works towards the creation of equitable outcomes. Strategies that produce equity must be targeted to address the unequal needs, conditions, and positions of people and communities that are created by institutional and structural barriers.

  • Diversity: Refers to the wide array of differences among people and their perspectives on the world. Diversity is an important goal in its own right, but it may or may not be linked to the issue of equity. The presence of people who are diverse does not necessarily produce decision-making that optimizes results for the groups their diversity reflects.

  • Inclusion: Refers to the efforts made to recognize and value diversity. Inclusion is reflected in the ability of diverse peoples to raise their perspectives authentically, and for those voices to matter and impact decisions.

  • Accessibility: Refers to the design of products, devices, services, or environments for people who experience disabilities.

Soni Dasmohapatra was born and raised in the South Side of Edmonton. After completing her Bachelor of Arts at the University of Alberta, she moved to Toronto. Soni was involved in supporting social innovation, and philanthropy work at the community level with organizations such as the City of Toronto, United Way Toronto, Laidlaw and Maytree Foundations. Soni also worked as a senior project manager with the Government of Ontario and as a consultant with the United Nations. Since returning to Edmonton she has worked with the Government of Alberta, and is core team member at the Edmonton ShiftLab 1.0. As a recent Masters in Public Administration graduate, Soni is keen to map Alberta’s ecosystems to find, contribute and create spaces of social innovation. To connect with Soni you can email her at sonidas@icloud.com or find her on LinkedIn.

Do you have a story, idea, or insight you’d like to share with the ABSI Connect community? Did this guest blog post spark reflections or ideas you’d like to chat about? Let us know!