03/18/2016 16:45 EDT | Updated 03/19/2017 01:12 EDT

Ratna Omidvar, Toronto expert on diversity, to sit as independent senator

A Toronto woman who has spent more than 30 years fighting to make Canada more inclusive received a call from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier this week. She was in Ottawa for a holiday with her grandchildren when the phone rang.

"It isn't the intermediary. It's the prime minister himself. I was stunned into silence for quite a little while," Ratna Omidvar, 66, told CBC News.

Trudeau told her he was going to recommend her for an appointment to the Senate and she would sit as an independent from Ontario. "It was an excellent conversation," she said. 

The call left her "overcome with joy." Omidvar said she is convinced she was chosen because of her length of service and her ability to work with people of different political affiliations.

As an expert in immigration, diversity and inclusion, she said she will continue the work she has been doing for decades. That means speaking out for people whose voices have not always been heard.

"I have always said this country will not succeed unless its immigrants and refugees succeed with it. Our demographics and labour-market projections tell us that," she said.

Omidvar, who was born and raised in India, is the founding executive director and adjunct professor of the Global Diversity Exchange at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management.

The GDX, as it is known, calls itself a "think-and-do tank" with a focus on diversity that results from global migration. Work there includes identifying and amplifying the links between prosperity, diversity and migration and anchoring these in policy, research and practice.

Omidvar is currently chair of Lifeline Syria, a Toronto-based organization that recruits, trains and assists sponsor groups as they welcome and support Syrian refugees coming to Canada as permanent immigrants as they resettle in the Greater Toronto Area. 

Omidvar is a Member of the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario. 

Will vote based on life experiences

"I'm excited about sitting as an independent because I can vote with my values. And I can review the issues that come before the Senate, not in a partisan or political way, but based on the way I have experienced the lives of people. I have worked for more than 30 years on issues that I care deeply about that are increasingly important to Canadians."

Between 1998 and 2014, when she was executive director and president of Maytree, a charitable foundation that aims to reduce poverty and inequality in Canada, she founded the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council and DiverseCity on Board.

The council champions solutions to help integrate skilled immigrants in the Greater Toronto labour market. DiverseCity on Board is a program that links people from visible minority and underrepresented communities to volunteer board positions.

Omidvar said she was initially surprised that she was chosen but realized it makes sense.

"There's always surprise to some extent because there are so many good Canadians who are able to do the job, but there's also a moment of reflection that this is the right thing for someone like me to do now," she said.

"There are issues that concern me that I have not been able to work on."

Omidvar, who has two daughters and three granddaughters, immigrated to Canada from Iran with her husband in 1981. She has lived in Toronto since then.

"I want to serve my country. The appointment of independent senators may show us the way forward," she said. "It's an exciting opportunity for me and an exciting time in the history of our country."