As the United Nations is somewhat removed from our daily experience, we have a tendency to ignore it, or treat it as unimportant, and especially when the story is not so flattering.
In fact, most Canadian news outlets ignored last months’ release of the 23-page report of the UN independent expert on minority issues on her mission to Canada. Yet, rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, perhaps there is something Canadians can learn about ourselves from someone outside of the family.
The UN Human Rights Council delegates thematic mandates to independent experts who report back to the council. These experts can, among other studies, conduct missions in specific countries. An American international human rights expert, Gay McDougall, was nominated as the independent expert on minority issues in July 2005. Prior to her visit to Canada, she conducted missions in Hungary and Ethiopia (2006), France and Dominican Republic (2007), Guyana and Greece (2008), and Kazakhstan (2009).
McDougall’s official 10-day visit to Canada took place in mid-October. She visited Ontario, British Columbia, and Quebec, and as she states in her report: “held consultations with senior federal, provincial, and territorial government representatives with responsibilities in the field of minority rights, anti-discrimination, and poverty.”
She also held a number of meetings with non-governmental organizations, “members of minority communities and academics and hosted forums for minority women.”
McDougall concluded that Canada has an impressive constitutional and legislative framework that requires “adherence to the core principles of equality and non-discrimination for all.” And that we have a right to feel proud of our “richly diverse society including citizens with many ethnic backgrounds, numerous languages, religions, and cultural practices.”
She noted that, “[P]ersons belonging to minorities generally described Canada as a society where they can express their identities, speak their languages, and practise their faiths freely and without hindrance.” Despite this strong base, what she heard from minority groups is that they feel that the government does not understand their problems or have the will to solve them.
As an expert in minority issues, McDougall knows the experiences of minority populations are diverse. So many factors are at play, including race, the number of years within Canada, level of education, gender, language, and religion to name a few.
Of course these experiences don’t take place in a vacuum. They take place in relationship with the majority population, how the minority group is perceived and dealt with, as well as with the development and reactions within their own community. It is a complicated picture that the independent expert says requires sophisticated data in order to develop policies and programs that will address the identified problems.
The mission to Canada report includes information from a variety of Canadian sources.
Data collected by Statistics Canada shows that visible minorities account for 16.2 per cent of the roughly 31 million people living in Canada. Three out of 10 visible minorities are born in Canada; the rest are new immigrants or refugees. Between 2001 and 2006, the number of visible minorities grew five times faster than the population as a whole. By 2017, it is estimated one in five Canadians will be non-white. Most visible minorities live in cities.
The 2002 Statistics Canada Ethnic Diversity Survey revealed that 20 per cent of visible minorities felt they had been discriminated against compared to 10 per cent of non-visible minorities; 32 per cent of African-Canadians said they had experienced discrimination. About 21 per cent of South Asians and 18 per cent of Chinese respondents reported the same. These incidents were experienced most often at work or in a store or a bank.
A 2003 survey completed by the Centre for Research and Information showed 74 per cent of Canadians believe racism is prevalent in Canada. A 2007 Leger Marketing survey showed that 47 per cent of Canadians admitted to having some racist views against Arab and Muslim minorities.
Poverty is a persistent problem faced by racialized communities. Blacks in Ottawa are five times more likely to be poor than the non-visible minority population. The numbers of those earning less that $20,000 per year are 60 per cent for black Canadians, 55 per cent for all visible minorities, and 37 per cent for non-visible minorities.
Dropout rates are particularly high among African-descendant Canadians and some Asian-Canadian communities. These minority groups are concerned that the public school system is not serving their children well. Students have few minority role models among teaching and administrative staff. Approaches to education and the curriculum tend to ignore their histories and contributions.
The unemployment rate for minorities is higher than non-minorities. The 2006 census data shows that while the non-minority rate of unemployment was 6.2 per cent, the rate for African-Canadians was 10.7 per cent and 13 per cent for Arabs. Unemployment among Muslim women (16.5 per cent) is more than double the rate for all women (7.2 per cent), despite higher levels of education. Research by the Canadian Labour Congress concluded that discrimination is an important contributing factor to the poor labour market outcomes of visible minorities.
Whether in Montreal, Toronto, or Vancouver, visible minorities belonging to African-Canadian, Muslim, Arab, and Latino communities reported that they felt they were subjected to unjustified police surveillance due to social profiling.
In 2008, only seven per cent of members of the Canadian Parliament were visible minorities while they actually made up about 15 per cent of the overall population. Muslim women are severely under-represented among elected officials.
The independent expert closed her report with a series of conclusion and recommendations regarding ways in which Canadian governments can ameliorate the situation and outcomes for visible minorities.
These include robust actions to achieve equality in employment through full implementation of non-discrimination and equality guarantees; disaggregating data on visible minorities to reveal the true picture of achievements and challenges faced by different communities; targeting poverty-elimination policies to the special needs of ethnic/racial and religious groups; comprehensively addressing inequalities in educational outcomes; increasing political participation of minorities; taking effective steps to protect against racial or religious profiling; ensuring that counter-terrorism measures meet human rights standards; and strengthening mechanisms of redress and access to justice throughout the country.
McDougall has received some criticism for including developed western countries as part of her research program. Some have complained her studies and insights should be focused solely on countries known for serious abuses of human rights. This is hardly surprising, although somewhat ironic, since the root of discriminatory treatment lies in the differentiation of “us” and “them.”
Nevertheless, the report is still a useful reminder that vigilance is always necessary in the protection of human rights; if we want to preserve the freedoms that we have, we must be mindful of the voices of those who feel they are not being heard; and as the composition of Canadian society continues to change there will always be more work to do.
Lucie Lamarche is the Gordon F. Henderson Research Chair in Human Rights and director of research of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa. This article was co-written with Sonya Nigam, the centre’s executive director.