The use of the term “visible minority”, officially, is probably unique to Canada.
I come to this conclusion because, a few years ago, a body of the United Nations, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination CERD), raised the concern about its use by the Canadian government. The majority of other jurisdictions use “ethnic minority” or simply “minority” to identify ethnic or racial groups that are comparatively smaller than the majority group.
In 1986, the Government of Canada enacted the Employment Equity Act. The objective of the Act, in simple terms, was to remedy the disadvantages in the workplace faced by Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities, women and visible minorities. The Act has been updated a couple of times but many believe that it has failed to fulfil its promise. Nevertheless, we are perhaps better off with it than without.
My discussion, however, will not be about the Employment Equity Act and its merits, or lack thereof. It is about the all-encompassing, impersonal grouping: visible minority.
Like the introduction of the Social Insurance Number (SIN), the concept of visible minority was introduced to accomplish a singular purpose. And, like the SIN, visible minority took on a life of its own, adapted for use outside of its prescribed role. This impersonal grouping envelops all non-White persons, with the exception of Aboriginal peoples, who are in their own category.
However, does this nomenclature create another barrier by itself? This is the question that CERD, which monitors the implementation of the international Covenant on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to which Canada is signatory, is asking.
As the name implies, CERD’s mission is to monitor the efforts by Member States to reduce and eliminate racial discrimination. As part of its commitment, each Member State is required to report regularly on its progress to fulfil those objectives.
In its concluding observations to Canada’s report in 2007, the Committee raised the issue, asking Canada to “reflect on the use of the term ‘visible minority’”. CERD’s concern was that a category adopted for a specific purpose was now being used widely, outside of that specific context.
Did this usage, the Committee wanted to know, have the effect of establishing, or reinforcing, the “White” population – the non-visible majority – as the norm?
The Committee, in its Concluding Observations on Canada’s latest report issued earlier this year, in which Canada tried to justify its continued use of the term, found its continued use unacceptable.
Canada insisted that it had no intention of changing the term, specific to the Employment Equity Act. It also reported that discussions and consultations on the use of the term were “divided”.
CERD countered: “While appreciating the State party’s (Canada’s) efforts, the Committee continues to have residual doubts regarding continuing use of the term ‘visible minorities’. The term is considered objectionable by certain minorities who claim that it is being used at all levels of the Canadian society, homogenizing experiences of different ethnic groups. Its lack of precision may pose a barrier to effectively addressing the socio-economic gaps of different ethnic groups.”
The fact is, the Committee notes, the definition of the term, within the context of the Employment Equity Act, is that “visible minorities refers to persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race and non-White in colour”. It does not address the “socio-economic gaps between the different ethnic groups”.
One of the terms which have evolved into more common usage is “diversity”. It is a term which, to me, muddles the scene even more, particularly as it concerns persons of African descent.
The principle behind the Employment Equity Act is that certain people have suffered economic disadvantages because of their race, gender and disabilities. The Employment Equity Act was instituted, and further supported by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as a special measure to bridge the gap created by these disadvantages.
The “diversity” concept still, to my mind, buries the socio-economic aspect, and perhaps provides little or no advantage to persons of African descent. The fact that the gathering of data by race in employment is still prohibited makes it a difficult matter to verify.
Indeed, CERD also made the request that Canada provides, in its next report, “reliable and comprehensive statistical data on the ethnic composition of its population and its economic and social indicators disaggregated by ethnicity, gender, including on Aboriginal (indigenous) peoples, African Canadians and immigrants, to enable the Committee to better evaluate the enjoyment of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of various groups of its population’’.
In what seems to be an attempt not to comply, the federal government has dispensed with the Census long form.
Canada has basked in the international spotlight of “multiculturalism” and being “relatively free of discriminatory practices” even when confronted by facts that contradict that assumption. To be fair, it has offered apologies to and reparations for its treatment of some racialized and Aboriginal peoples.
It has not for people of African descent, and largely refuses to acknowledge anti-Black racism.
Thankfully, CERD continues to monitor this state of affairs, although, regrettably, it is not empowered to do much about it.
By Patrick Hunter