Canada, despite a reputation for being an inclusive society that celebrates diversity, will have to defend itself against UN concerns about racial discrimination—all over a term designed precisely to combat racial discrimination. Next year, for the second time in five years, a delegation from the Ministry of Canadian Heritage will appear before the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, to answer criticisms over Ottawa’s use of the term “visible minorities.” The committee deems it to be out of step with the “aims and objectives” of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Canada’s use of the term “seemed to somehow indicate that whiteness was the standard, all others differing from that being visible,” says committee member Patrick Thornberry, a professor of international law at Keele University in Britain.
“That’s just crazy,” says Tom Flanagan, a political scientist at the University of Calgary and former adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. “It’s the internal logic of professional bureaucrats gone amok.”
Canada was last brought before the 18-member UN committee in 2007. Comprised of diplomats and academics tasked with monitoring member states’ implementation of the convention, it found the term itself discriminatory. And it didn’t stop there, faulting Canada’s Anti-Terrorism Act and its potential for racial profiling of ethnic groups, as well as the country’s treatment of undocumented migrants and asylum-seekers, systemic discrimination of Aboriginal people, and a disproportionate force used by police on African Canadians. But the objection to “visible minorities” topped the list of concerns. While the committee (which doesn’t include a single Canadian member) was quick to rebuke Canada’s use of terminology, it refrained from recommending any alternatives—it asked that Ottawa “reflect further” on its use.
After the 2007 rebuke, Ottawa went to work consulting experts and holding workshops. The result was a 74-page report examining “visible minorities” through the years. It said the term is “specific to the administration of the Employment Equity Act,” designed to protect visible minorities, women, Aboriginal people and the disabled against workplace discrimination. While the EEA interprets “visible minorities” as “persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour,” it also specifies that only employees who wish to identify themselves to their employer need do so. Flanagan traces the roots of the term to “the identity politics of the 1970s and ’80s,” when neologisms like multiculturalism entered the bureaucratic lexicon.
The EEA itself emerged from the 1984 Abella commission establishing the principle that employers must use practices that increase minority representation. Nearly 5.5 million Canadians self-identify as part of a visible minority. “I don’t see the point of replacing it, it’s not a pejorative term,” says Flanagan. The government concluded no other category adequately addressed the labour market disadvantage faced by these groups. Further, it encourages proactive accommodation of diversity in the workplace. The report also said that Canada has “no plans of changing its standard usage,” a position it will defend when it appears before the Geneva-based commission again in early 2012.
“Some people consider affirmative action and quotas as racist,” says Jason Maghanoy, a Filipino-Canadian playwright in Toronto, “but sometimes you need to force diversity.” Maghanoy says it’s a matter of choice that he identifies himself as part of a visible minority when he applies for arts grants. “I always identify myself as Asian and I don’t feel discriminated against when I do.”
While many Canadians might dismiss the committee’s concern, it doesn’t mean the EEA couldn’t stand to be updated. Flanagan admits that while “visible minorities” doesn’t need to be replaced, “as a working term, there are some problems with it.” Michael Bach, national director of diversity, equity and inclusion at global accounting firm KPMG, supports the UN recommendation and says that while the legislation was a benchmark for progress in the workplace 25 years ago, he has never been a proponent of “visible minorities.” It’s archaic, he says, and reinforces the view that white is the norm. “We should be asking ourselves what is the right term,” says Bach. One proposed alternative is “racialized communities.” But this makes many people on both sides of the debate uncomfortable: it’s either an example of political correctness gone too far or it reinforces racial stereotypes. Ultimately, says Bach, the government should be involving minority communities in the process.
And real inequalities still exist today. “Decision-makers, those in positions of power,” says Maghanoy, “are still predominantly white men.”