Cultural Information - El Salvador

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Cultural Information

Answers to your intercultural questions from a Canadian and a local point of view.

Cultural Information - Conversations

Question:

I am meeting someone for the first time and I want to make a good impression. What would be good discussion topics?

Local Perspective:

El Salvadorans enjoy speaking about everything but, particularly, about their job, family, and customs. If you do not begin the conversation, they will. It is possible that El Salvadorans would like to know more about Canada and its people. Do not be surprised by the spontaneity of the people. El Salvadorans feel proud about their beaches, typical foods and some other beautiful places in the country. As an initial recommendation, any of these topics can be a good beginning for a conversation and a future friendly relationship with a Salvadoran.

El Salvadorans are good conversers and very comprehensible with foreign people. You do not have to be worried for your Spanish; they will try to understand you one way or another, and a lot of people in the country can speak English due to the close relationship with the United States. Don’t be shy; you can make a lot of friends in El Salvador.

El Salvadoran society is very polarized, even after the long war and the signing of the peace treaty in 1992. I think that a bad topic to begin a conversation is by asking about the political situation of the country, unless you know the political orientation of the person with whom you are talking. Of course, after knowing the person and the context, you could talk about internal politics. The same idea applies if you try to talk about religion. These are topics that should be avoided at first contact with El Salvadorans.

El Salvadorans love funny conversations, jokes and the use of nicknames. Salvadoran humor could be hard to understand for Canadians; it is based on context-specific topics such as personal defects, sex, and machismo, among others. Maybe you will not find it so funny but, those are just jokes and almost nobody gets offended by them. This is a general characteristic of El Salvadorans and it does not matter the social condition sex, religion, etc. they enjoy making jokes, although it does depend on the occasion. I hope you can enjoy too!

Canadian Perspective:

When meeting someone for the first time, it is safe to talk about topics such as family, work, interests and origins. Small talk about the weather and places visited in the country or region is also acceptable. However, it is generally better not to talk about politics, the civil war or religion until the relationship has developed. Even ten years after the signing of the peace accords, many people carry strong emotions about what happened during and since the war. This is closely tied with the current politics. Many Salvadorans feel strongly about these topics and may not want to discuss them with a stranger. While Catholicism remains the dominant religion in El Salvador, evangelical Protestantism is gaining in popularity. When meeting deeply religious people, they often talk about their beliefs and God and will also ask about your beliefs. As this can lead to discomfort for people with different or no religious affiliations, it is best not to bring up the topic of religion casually.

Cultural Information - Communication Styles

Question:

What do I need to know about verbal and non-verbal communications?

Local Perspective:

The way El Salvadorans speak is very similar to North American customs but physical contact is a clear difference. You have to keep a reasonable distance when speaking and it is not proper if you approach too much, even though physical contact is part of our culture. Normally El Salvadorans are very expressive and you will find a range of physical expressions like kisses, hugs, and strong handshakes indicating that you are very welcomed. When speaking, El Salvadorans use their hands and arms a lot, and some times their body. Do not be afraid if somebody touches your arm or tries to shake your hand during a conversation. In addition, eye contact is considered very important. It is considered an important part of the person’s credibility but an excessive eye contact could be offensive. You have to watch the amount of eye contact with each person. In general, you do not have to expect a really different way of speaking, but be prepared for a sometimes very close body contact when speaking, whether the person you are talking with is of the same gender or not.

Canadian Perspective:

Communication in El Salvador involves more physical contact than in Canada. Women-men and women-women conversations usually begin with a kiss on the cheek. Handshakes between these groups more closely resemble holding hands or arms and are prolonged. Men who enjoy a close friendship often touch each other on the arm or back. This physicality extends itself to distance when speaking to each other. Salvadorans generally feel comfortable standing or sitting close to each other when talking and touching to emphasize a point in the conversation. I would estimate that the distance when speaking varies between one half to three quarters the acceptable Canadian bubble (which I estimate to be 2-3 feet). Salvadorans will also use their hands when speaking. Rather than pointing, Salvadorans often make facial gestures, a common one is to purse the lips (imagine lips puckered in preparation for a kiss) in the direction of the person or object one is referring to. This is much more polite than pointing. As in Canada, it is impolite to raise your voice to someone and doing so would be interpreted as a sign of anger.

Cultural Information - Display of Emotion

Question:

Are public displays of affection, anger or other emotions acceptable?

Local Perspective:

Displays of affection are not a problem in El Salvador, but a display of anger can create big problems. Due to the war and the high level of delinquency today, a lot of people are armed with guns, rifles and, machine guns. Many are prepared to shoot, if it is necessary. If you are angry with somebody, it is a better idea to remain calm. Heated discussions and fighting must be avoided at all costs.

Our society is considered as “Machista”. Public displays of affection are accepted among men and women, but not in any other kind of emotional or sexual relationships.

Canadian Perspective:

Public displays of emotion can be acceptable in certain circumstances. Displays of affection are visible between couples in the following forms: holding hands and kissing goodbye. While one does see young couples engaging in serious kissing, it is generally not well received. Women often walk hand-in-hand. Displays of anger are not common in the workplace or in public. One sees people yelling in the street and sometimes fighting; however, the participants are regarded as crazy and the fear exists that the situation could turn violent.

Cultural Information - Dress, Punctuality & Formality

Question:

What should I know about the workplace environment (deadlines, dress, formality, etc.)?

Local Perspective:

The way in which people address each other sometimes sounds formal. In Spanish, there are different ways to address people; depending on the age, position, etc. and in El Salvador, just two ways are used. The respectful way is by the use of "usted" and the friendly way by using "vos". If you are going to talk with your superior or with someone who is older than you, it is highly recommended that you use "usted". If you are talking to your colleagues or friends you can use "vos". You will know people at work very fast, but generally you will need to address them by using their last name preceded by the word "Señor, Señora" (married woman), "Señorita" (single woman) or their professional degree.

Punctuality for El Salvadorans is not so important. They usually arrive late. It is a very common practice, but in matters of productivity, they are recognized as hard workers and usually work overtime. Expect a minimum of absenteeism and where there is absenteeism, there has to be a good justification.

Canadian Perspective:

The dress is quite similar to Canada, in the summer. Some companies have uniforms for their employees, usually service oriented businesses such as banks. The dress code in many offices for men is shirts and slacks (more formal situations call for ties and jackets), and for women, dresses and skirts. While many offices are more informal (for example, NGOs), where pants are more common for women as well as men, the formal dress is appropriate for special occasions.

It is best to use the Usted form when addressing supervisors and co-workers. When relationships become informal the vos form is commonly used. It is advisable to wait until the native Spanish speaker uses this informal form; however, with a foreigner it may take a long time (if ever) to occur. While the Usted form is used, people use first names.

The Salvadoran approach to time can initially be a challenge for North Americas who are not familiar with the pace. I have never been to a meeting, event, appointment, etc. that has started at the indicated time. That said, it is best to turn up at the appointed hour and bring reading material or something else to keep you occupied. I have found that the more "important" the person that I am meeting, the longer I must wait to be seen. In many offices punctuality is important and employees that arrive late stay longer after work to make up for the missed time. I do not think that this concept of time has a negative impact on productivity because people are usually late because they are coming from another meeting/activity/event.

Cultural Information - Preferred Managerial Qualities

Question:

What qualities are most highly regarded in a local superior/manager? How will I know how my staff view me?

Local Perspective:

El Salvadorans are recognized as hard workers and responsible persons. A manager who works a lot, often outside of the normal schedule and who has a lot of experience in the field is perceived as a good manager. El Salvadorans like humble people who are open to new ideas - people who want to share their knowledge. In our country it is easier for foreign people to be respected and believed because we are considered a "malinchista" society. However, a selfish and arrogant foreign manager could run into problems. El Salvadorans like to work hard, but they will not tolerate this management style from a foreigner.

Regarding education, Canada is a country where, normally, you need a certification or a diploma to work in any specific field. In El Salvador, sometimes experience is more important than education. Of course, there are some regulated fields, like medicine or dentistry, but in some situations you will find people working in jobs without the required education.

Leadership is an important characteristic for managers; however, I would say that a modern kind of leadership would be more successful in El Salvador than more conservative styles. Having an open mind, flexibility, a participative style emphasizing empowerment and facilitation, are some of the characteristics of a modern manager. These characteristics are welcomed in Salvadoran organizations, although sometimes, like in any other country, people refuse a participative style because they are not prepared for an open communication and the implementation of participatory structures and processes at different organizational levels. It would be wise to keep to specific discussions with internal teams in order to define the better style of working. El Salvadorans are open mind and they will accept a modern management style than any other style.

Canadian Perspective:

Education is highly regarded by everyone. A person with a university degree will be addressed as licenciado/a and the term commands respect in all aspects of society, not just the workplace. Education is more highly regarded than experience. Other highly regarded qualities include strong leadership and direction, being personable and having many connections. Like many other cultures, in El Salvador, who you know is very important. Relatives often work together and jobs and promotion are apt to go to someone known. While in North America people are sceptical of nepotism, it is an expected practice here. The ability to network and have one’s own connections is also important as it makes work much easier. Strong leadership and direction are important, as workplaces are hierarchical, decisions are made by management and carried out by staff. Due to this style of management, employees need a lot of direction when performing tasks.

As an expat, I was automatically awarded a position of respect. Some basic abilities that are taken for granted in Canada are less common and more respected in El Salvador.

Cultural Information - Hierarchy and Decision-making

Question:

In the workplace, how are decisions taken and by whom? Is it acceptable to go to my immediate supervisor for answers or feedback?

Local Perspective:

In El Salvador, managers are mainly autocratic and they are the source of decisions and ideas. It is acceptable, in any situation in El Salvador, to go to your immediate supervisor for feedback and answers.

Canadian Perspective:

In my experience, many organizations are hierarchical. Decisions are made by the director/board of directors/president with some input from the key managers. Regardless of the input of staff or useful suggestions that may be offered, the ultimate power lies with the person in charge. It is acceptable to go to one’s supervisor for answers and feedback and I feel that it is an excellent way to clarify cultural differences that can affect one’s work.

Cultural Information - Religion, Class, Ethnicity, & Gender

Question:

Briefly describe the local culture’s attitudes regarding the following: Gender, Class, Religion and Ethnicity. What impact would the above attitudes have on the workplace?

Local Perspective:


Gender:
Unfortunately there is a lot of inequity for women. Generally they earn less, have lower positions in organizations and face strong pressures to stay at home, even though things are changing. It is still a man’s society, but women are progressively improving their status. It is generally accepted to offer help to a woman open the car door and offer your seat. These attitudes are very well viewed.

Sexual harassment can be a problem. Men are used to flirting with women. It does not matter if they are on the street, at the job or in a party! They will do the same every time! For a Canadian woman this could be the most difficult situation to deal with while working and living in El Salvador.

Religion:
The official religion is Roman Catholic, but there are others religions such as Baptist and other denominations. You will not find any strong barriers to establishing a relationship with someone of another religion.

Class:
There are different social classes, with marked differences between them. Higher classes are located in the capital and in the rest of the country it is fairly rare to find rich people. 35% of the population is considered very poor and another 30% as poor.

Ethnicity:
due to political and social problems, inherited by colonialism, native people were forgotten and our roosts almost disappear, however the Mayan culture is still alive in some areas along Central America. The native dialect is "nahuat", which just few people know. There is not a predominant race.

It is common to see wealthy businesswoman/man, but some of them treat their employees with no respect. This is noticeable through: a different kind in communication, their expressions when taking about poor people, differences in opportunities, and mainly in the salary. This situation can be clearly observed in some sectors as the industrial, commercial, and agricultural and you can find your self involved implementing some decisions, in the organization, which could affect impoverished employees.

Problems or impacts in the workplace are generated mainly because of gender and class position, but not by religion or ethnicity issues.

Canadian Perspective:


Gender:
Like many other Latin American societies, machismo is alive and well in El Salvador. The majority of women are in low level jobs, both in regards to their responsibility, status and salary. Many women are employed in the informal sector, as domestic workers and market or ambulatory vendors. The wages in the informal sector are unregulated. This presents a serious problem considering that about one third of all families are headed by single mothers. These factors combined translate to a lower social status for women.

Some people believe that women should not work outside of the house but rather devote their time to raising a family and maintaining the house. Domestic violence is a serious problem with little recourse to be taken by the victims. The government has invested little in these issues and many non-governmental organizations are trying to increase awareness about the low status of women. The low status of women is seen in the workplace in the positions that they hold and the benefits they receive (an insured woman is entitled to 3 months maternity leave but no day care is available for when this period lapses).

Religion:
Religion is a constant part of Salvadoran culture. The majority of Salvadorans are Catholic but the segment of Evangelical Protestants is increasing. While religion is present from daily language ("how are you?" Is often answered with "thanks to God, good") to street-corner preachers, I have not felt its impact in the workplace.

Class:
El Salvador is a class society. More than 50% of the people live below the poverty line, many of who live in absolute poverty. People working in offices usually fall into the middle class category which can be further divided into:

1. lower—those who makes at least double the minimum wage or have relatives in the US who send at least double the minimum wage to them;

2. middle—people who make at least double the minimum wage/received remittances of equal amount and can afford a car;

3. upper—people who make more than double the minimum wage, have a car and have a substantial disposable income. The small group that is the upper class is made up of 14 families; high-level politicians and people with inherited money and connections. Most offices have a muchacha who is a cleaner and brings beverages to employees and guests. She may be the only person who belongs to the lower class.

Ethnicity:
El Salvador has a small indigenous population when compared to its Guatemalan neighbour. Much of this population was massacred in the 1930s, losing language and culture in addition to human lives. Most of the remaining indigenous people live in the countryside and are agriculturalists. As they live in the poor parts of the country and are undereducated, they are often perceived as being unintelligent. There are parts of the country that are known to have indigenous roots and there is interest in the crafts that they make and the festivals they hold.

Cultural Information - Relationship-building

Question:

How important is it to establish a personal relationship with a colleague or client before getting to business?

Local Perspective:

El Salvadoreans like to establish friendly relationships before getting to business and prefer to do business with people whom they know. Friendship is really appreciated in El Salvador. El Salvadorans are interested in approaching people to know more about them.

It is common to receive invitations to eat at a friend’s house, sharing time with his or her family. El Salvadorans love to introduce their families to their friends, especially to foreign people. They expect foreign people to participate and feel relaxed at their homes. Is also very common to receive an invitation to participate in family trips during weekends. Is not a good idea to reject this kind of invitation, as El Salvadorans are susceptible when an invitation is rejected. It is better, when visiting El Salvador, to be prepared for a very intense friendly relationship. Sometimes is difficult to find time alone.

Canadian Perspective:

It is essential to establish a personal relationship with colleagues; failing to do so could negatively impact one’s performance as well as successful results. Salvadorans are very friendly which makes personal relationships easy to form. During the workday, co-workers will pop into each other’s workspace to chat, have a coffee or share an interesting discovery. Co-workers also often eat lunch together. This personal contact is important and carries over to work habits. My experience has been that co-workers consult each other about work decisions and ask one another for advice. I have found this "chatting time" extremely useful in my job as I have learned important information that co-workers have casually told me on a break or during extended lunch hour conversation.

Cultural Information - Privileges and Favouritism

Question:

Would a colleague or employee expect special privileges or considerations given our personal relationship or friendship

Local Perspective:

Yes, I think that, like many countries, most people in El Salvador expect special privileges when they establish a relationship with other people. However, it is better not to make decisions based on personal relations or friendship. In El Salvador you can let people know that you will not grant with privileges because of a relationship with them. As in any place, you will find people that want to be closer to you just to get favors.

You have to be very carefully and not to be confused between people who want to be friendly and nice to you and people who seek privileges. El Salvadorans are very kind and not all are looking for something. It can be a big mistake when refusing invitations from people who are just trying to be nice. Try to maintain a good communication, listen to advice or suggestions, and show interest in peoples’ points of view.

Canadian Perspective:

As previously mentioned, in El Salvador connections (especially family relations) are very important as they involve special privileges and considerations. People in positions of power often hire family members or friends. This falls in line with the closeness of families and the large amounts of time they spend together. As there are few social benefits provided by the government (there is no employment insurance and minimal pensions), looking out for family members could be a solution to the uncertainty of life. I don’t know if this is expected of expats.

Cultural Information - Conflicts in the Workplace

Question:

I have a work-related problem with a colleague. Do I confront him or her directly? Privately or publicly?

Local Perspective:

If you have problems with a colleague, you can try to converse about it in private to solve that problem. Do not confront her/him in public; it could be a negative situation for you as a foreign person.

When somebody is having problems with you, she/he could be somewhat rude with you and may be unable to resist making jokes about you to others.

Canadian Perspective:

My experience has been that it is initially preferable not to confront someone directly but rather to air out frustrations to an intermediary, someone who is trusted by both parties. However, when doing this, it is important to not attack the person and to focus on non-personal frustrations. Once this is done, you can approach the person directly and personally, not publicly. Being discreet and indirect should yield the best results. Focus on the situation, pointing out how the situation is difficult for the other person is often a good idea and can make the discussion more effective. You may need to have this discussion more than once.

Cultural Information - Motivating Local Colleagues

Question:

What motivates my local colleagues to perform well on the job?

Local Perspective:

From my point of view, job satisfaction is their main motivation, provided that the employee is earning enough money to feed their needs. It is important to consider that El Salvador is a very expensive country considering the average income. Do not be surprised if you find many El Salvadorans working under really bad conditions in their jobs, trying to perform the best they can, just because it is difficult to get a job. It is important to mention that around 60% of the population is unemployed.

Canadian Perspective:

I feel that the motivation to perform well is often money and maintaining one’s employment. Salvadorans are known to be hard-workers and entrepreneurial. I believe there is a different cultural interpretation of performing well in El Salvador compared to what many Canadians may be used to.

Cultural Information - Recommended Books, Films & Foods

Question:

To help me learn more about the local culture(s), please recommend: books, films, television shows, foods and web sites.

Local Perspective:

Books: Salvador Salazar Arrué (Salarrue) - Cuentos de Barro, La Botija and Cuentos de Cipotes; Roque Dalton - Taberna y Otros Lugares, Las Historias prohibidas del pulgarcito, and Pobrecito Poeta que era yo; José Ignacio López Vigíl - Mil y una historias de Radio Venceremos; Horacio Castellanos Moya - El asco; and Liisa North - Bitter Grounds.

You can review the following book prepared for The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of The Republic of El Salvador: Chislett, William, El Salvador a New Opportunity, Euromoney Books 1998. It can be found at the Consulate of El Salvador.

To know and learn more about El Salvador using Internet, you can visit: www.infocentros.com.sv, www.rree.gob.sv, and www.sv.

Canadian Perspective:

I recommend the movie Romero (starring Raul Julia, circa 1990) to get an idea of what was happening leading up to the civil war (prior to 1980). Another reason is that Monseñor Romero remains an important Salvadoran figure and some knowledge to who he was would be beneficial. I have read two excellent books about the country. One is a novel written by Manlio Argueta called Un Dia en la Vida (a Day in Life) and takes place in the countryside during the civil war. The other book is called From Grandmother to Granddaughter: Salvadoran Women’s Stories by Michael Gorkin, Marta Pineda and Gloria Leal. It is a series of interviews of nine women: a grandmother, daughter and granddaughter from upper, middle and lower socio-economic levels. Both are quite interesting and offer unique perspectives.

Cultural Information - In-country Activities

Question:

When in this country, I want to learn more about the culture(s) and people. What activities can you recommend?

Local Perspective:

Recommendations once you are there: Some areas of the country and the capital could be risky; try to ask before visiting any place and if possible, do not walk alone. Also, be careful on public transportation and in taxis. Try to travel, if it is possible, with friends. Also, take care with the food you buy on the street and the places you eat; it may not be clean enough. Remember that social and economic conditions in El Salvador are not really good. However the country is beautiful and most people are very friendly.

Places to visit: Beaches (Costa del Sol, El Cuco, Playas Negras, El Espino, Costa Azul, among others), Cerro Verde y Coatepeque Lake, Apaneca, Suchitoto, Santa Ana, Jardín Botánico "La Laguna", and Ruinas del Tazumal y San Andrés.

Food to eat: Pupusas, Tamales, Chilate and Horchata.

Music/Musicians: R.E.D., La Orquesta de los Hermanos Flores and La Orquesta San Vicente.

Visit: the National Theatre, "La Luna" Casa y Arte, La Ventana, El café and Galería El Arbol de Dios. You will find more information on: http://www.infocentros.org.sv/artecultura.php

Canadian Perspective:

One of the daily newspapers, El Diario de Hoy, has an insert in Thursday’s paper called El Planeta Alternativo. This insert has information on activities that will be happening for the next week. It is an excellent source of information about theatre, art exhibitions, music and festivals. The Teatro Presidential (in the Zona Rosa) hosts many plays and musical performances. Another good spot for a dose of culture (though not always Salvadoran) is the Centro Cultural de España (on Calle La Reforma). This cultural centre is associated with the Spanish Embassy and has activities weekly, which are free to the public and often include refreshments. An example of some activities that they have held are: a Cuban guitarist, an exhibition of sketches by a young Spanish woman drawn on a tour of El Salvador, and a one woman show by one of the leading national actresses. They also show films every Friday night. La Luna Café y Casa del Arte has live music a few times a week and on the last Friday of every month has a live salsa band. You need to get there early if you want to get a table.

Cultural Information - National Heroes

Question:

Who are this country's national heroes?

Local Perspective:

This is a difficult question to answer. There are no recognized national heroes in El Salvador, as I know.

Canadian Perspective:

Monseñor Romero is an important figure in Salvador’s recent past. He was the first Catholic figure to side with the poor masses and speak out publicly against the injustices they suffered. He was assassinated in March of 1980 by CIA-trained snipers. There are many murals dedicated to him and his work and one frequently comes across his quotes.

Cultural Information - Shared Historical Events with Canada

Question:

Are there shared historical events between this country and Canada that could affect work or social relations?

Local Perspective:

No.

Canadian Perspective:

Canada accepted many Salvadoran refugees during the civil war. In San Salvador, it is not uncommon to meet someone who has a relative living in Canada or has been visited the country.

By the end of 2002, Canada and the C.A.4 (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua) are supposed to sign a free trade agreement. I am sure that it will have an impact on relations.

Cultural Information - Stereotypes

Question:

What stereotypes do Canadians have about the local culture that might be harmful to effective relations?

Local Perspective:

Some people could confuse Canadian with Americans. Some Americans are seen as impolite and immodest.

Canadian Perspective:

The first stereotype that comes to mind is that El Salvador is a dangerous country and Salvadorans are violent people. While the country does have a high homicide rate, the majority are gang related. Try not to be startled by the number of armed guards that are seen on an hourly basis and assume that it reflects the risk factor. I believe that a smart person can assess the danger risk, considering the part of town, time of day and advice given by others. El Salvador is no longer a war-torn country. There has been a lot of work to rebuild infrastructure and relations.

Cultural Information - About the Cultural Interpreters

Local Interpreter:

Your cultural interpreter was born in El Salvador the youngest of three children. He was raised in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, where he studied. He graduated as an Electrical Engineer in 1986 from the Polytechnic University of El Salvador. Afterwards, your cultural interpreter immigrated to Canada to live. He is currently living in Toronto and working at York University as a Project Coordinator. He is married and has two children.

Canadian Interpreter:

Your cultural interpreter was born in Australia the younger of two daughters. She was raised in Ottawa and studied Anthropology at the University of Victoria. As a visiting student of Simon Fraser University she went to Chile in 1995 and, after graduating from university, to Hamamatsu, Japan, where she taught ESL. She then returned to Canada to do post-graduate studies in the Latin American Management Program at the McRae Institute for International Management in Vancouver. As a part of this program she went to San Salvador, where she completed the required one-year work term. She has since returned to work in Canada.

Disclaimer

Country Insights - Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.

You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.

The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.