UN expert Gay McDougall cites racial inequality in Canada
On March 21, 1960, police in Sharpeville, South Africa, fired shots that have reverberated around the world to this day. During a peaceful protest against apartheid, authorities killed 69 people and injured anywhere from 180 to 300 more in what became known as the Sharpeville Massacre. It launched the beginning of a campaign of violent resistance against the racist South African government.
Six years later, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which is observed every year on March 21 to commemorate the Sharpeville Massacre. In 1969, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination took effect, and Canada ratified it the following year.
But according to a recent report by the UN’s independent expert on minority issues, Gay McDougall, Canada still has a long way to go before it can claim to have eliminated racial discrimination. Her 23-page report, which went to the UN Human Rights Council earlier this month, cited “persistent problems” affecting certain ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities in Canada.
On the positive side, McDougall noted that people belonging to minorities in Canada told her that they can “express their identities, speak their languages and practise their faiths freely without hindrance”. McDougall, a U.S. lawyer, also praised Canada’s “impressive constitutional and legislative framework at the federal, provincial and territorial levels”, which requires adherence to the principle of equality.
But she claimed that there hasn’t been sufficient follow-up efforts. “Many of those consulted believe that federal provincial and territorial governments have not adequately implemented the impressive legislative and policy framework that exists,” she wrote. “They have failed to respond adequately to their problems or to devise meaningful and enforceable solutions, leaving them and their communities feeling discriminated against and neglected.”
McDougall visited B.C. during a tour of Canada between October 13 and 23, 2009. Her report recommends actions in the areas of employment, data collection, poverty elimination, education, minority political participation, policing, counterterrorism, and access to justice.
“Government must lead by example with robust efforts and measurable achievements in recruiting, retaining and promoting minorities to senior roles in the public service, ministries and departments,” she wrote. “Government workplaces should be examples of enabling environments for the advancement of minorities.”
Her report points out that the federal government created a task force in 2000 on the participation of minorities in the public service. However, she added that a decade later, “its objectives remain unfulfilled”.
Approximately 16.2 percent of Canada’s population are identified as visible minorities by Statistics Canada. In 2006, 95.9 percent lived in metropolitan areas with the largest concentrations in Toronto (42.9 percent) and Vancouver (41.7 percent). Three in 10 visible minorities were born in Canada, according to McDougall’s report.
She wrote that some visible-minority communities, such as black Canadians, object to the way data is collected about visible minorities. She recommended that the information should be disaggregated along religious and ethnic lines, stating that this is “essential to reveal hidden inequalities and to provide a key resource for informed policy responses”.
“Statistics Canada should hold nationwide consultations with various communities to develop terminology and a nomenclature based on the exercise of those communities’ right to self-identification,” McDougall wrote, adding that the data should be further disaggregated by gender to reveal how women’s experiences differ from men’s within different communities.
She also focused a fair amount of attention on the poverty gap between people of colour and the general population. “Income levels generally are significantly lower for minorities, unemployment rates are higher and minorities are disproportionately living in the poorest neighbourhoods and in social housing with relatively poor access to services,” she stated. “A cycle of poverty is set in place from which it is difficult to escape.”
McDougall recommended that governments target antipoverty policies to the specific needs of ethnic, racial, and religious minorities. In addition, she stated that minorities feel that “certain mechanisms of redress are inaccessible, underfunded and under threat, particularly the Human Rights Commissions”. This, she added, has “led some communities to perceive an erosion of their avenues for redress”.
The B.C. Liberal government eliminated the B.C. Human Rights Commission in 2002, which means that complainants must go directly to the quasi-judicial B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.
How do you rate Canada’s treatment of ethnic minorities?
“We didn’t start too well. We didn’t treat visible minorities that well—the Komagata Maru, the head tax, the Exclusion Act, the race riot of 1907. Then multiculturalism took hold, and [was] enshrined in the Constitution. The Bill of Rights came into play.”¦We have made tremendous progress within one generation considering that Chinese, First Nations people, and Indo-Canadians were not given the right to vote until 1947.”
“Immigrants do earn less, and are being discriminated against based on their ethnicities. At the same time, we, immigrants, have more freedoms and security than we would have at home. More than that, we have opportunities to make better lives, and it means working hard and dreaming big but celebrating small victories and staying positive. We are leading globally in terms of how we integrate immigrants, and how much support we provide to them.”
“I don’t think enough is being done. When we look at data on who is in charge, what are the top positions in major corporations, in universities, in government? They are not reflective of the diversity in Canada. When we look at which are the segments of society that are least likely to have access to capital and loans”¦we consistently see that it’s minority communities.”
“It’s really about how you come into the country. I came in under the Live-in Caregiver Program, and it’s so clear that the Canadian government treats us differently. When people come in as permanent residents they don’t have to worry about a temporary status, so they have access to some services right away and have a choice in employment which we don’t. We are being excluded and our human rights are being violated through our temporary status and poor working conditions. We receive the poorest kind of treatment”¦under this program.”