An inclusive society requires constant vigilance

McDougallBy Gay McDougall

The following statement was written by the United Nations Independent Expert on minority issues, Ms Gay McDougall, on the conclusion of her official visit to Canada.

During the course of my official visit to Canada between 13 and 23 October I have had an opportunity to meet with both government officials at the Federal and provincial levels and to consult directly with members of numerous minority communities in Ontario, British Colombia and Quebec.

My visit allowed me a unique opportunity for dialogue in relation to my mandate to promote implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic minorities. I came to Canada at the invitation of the Federal Government and I wish to express my thanks to the federal and provincial Governments for their cooperation in the preparation and conduct of my visit. I also wish to thank all those who contributed information and assistance to me including numerous non-governmental organizations. I want to emphasize that the views expressed in this statement are of a preliminary nature and are not comprehensive. My findings and recommendations will be fully developed in my report to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2010.

Canada is rightly proud of its richly diverse society including citizens with over 200 ethnic backgrounds, numerous languages, religions and cultural practices. Many identify themselves as African and Caribbean Canadians, Arab and Asian Canadians; people of colour and religious minorities. Persons belonging to minorities generally described Canada as a society open to and accepting of cultural, religious and linguistic differences, where they can express their identities, speak their languages and practice their faiths freely and without hindrance. Canada has an impressive constitutional and legislative framework at the federal and provincial levels that requires adherence to the core principles of equality and non-discrimination for all. Canada was a leader among nations in fashioning a state policy of multiculturalism.

However, achieving a truly inclusive society requires constant vigilance. As I have toured Canada members of various communities have discussed with me significant and persistent problems that they face in their lives as persons belonging to ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities, as people of colour or of particular religious beliefs. Many of those I have spoken with feel that the government has failed to respond adequately to their problems or to devise meaningful solutions, leaving them and their communities feeling discriminated against, neglected or as second class citizens in their country of birth or long-term residence. I would like to summarize a number of issues of concern raised with me by those communities.

1. In the course of my four years as Independent Expert on minority issues I have consistently highlighted that demographic data disaggregated along ethnic and religious lines, as well as gender, is essential to reveal hidden inequalities and to provide a key resource for informed policy responses. Statistics Canada has done excellent work in the field of data collection and analysis. But the demographics are changing so rapidly that there are new demands for deeper levels of disaggregation to keep pace with shifts in the economic and social status of specific minority communities. Digging deeper into demographic data can also give recognition to even greater diversity in Canadian society. While the category called “visible minority”, as used in the Employment Equity Act, was at one time a positive step to acknowledge minority communities, it is now too broad to give a realistic picture of the achievements of or problems faced by distinct communities.

Certain communities like African Canadians feel strongly that the terminology of “visible minorities” under which their data is captured leads inevitably to the neglect of their specific identities and situations. “Unpacking” the visible minority data is a first essential step towards recognition that a wide variety of experiences exist among different minority groups. In the numerous discussions that I had over the past two weeks with government officials at federal and provincial levels, I had a feeling of constant confusion about what groups were being referred to. Officials talked about “immigrants”, “visible minorities” and “cultural communities” in ways that often seemed inter-changeable and overlapping. Many of the most positive policies appear targeted towards “immigrants” and new arrivals, while few seem to speak directly to the experiences of those long-standing and established minority communities. The word “race” was almost never used; almost as if it was being deliberately avoided. Yet, I came to understand that issues of race still have salience in this society.

2. Both federal and provincial governments acknowledged to me that poverty is a problem disproportionately faced by people of colour including African Canadian and specific Asian Canadian communities. Poverty alleviation programmes in Canada must be targeted towards racialized communities. Responses should be holistic in nature and must recognize the complex causes of poverty that include discrimination targeted towards minorities because of the colour of their skin and the resulting social and economic exclusion.

3. There is a great amount of concern, particularly in African and some Asian Canadian communities that their children are having negative experiences in public schools. Data reveals that drop-out rates are particularly high among boys from these communities. This will merely perpetuate the poverty which is already evident and disproportionate in some minority communities. The current discourse and rhetoric of multicultural education appears to be failing these children. Parents and community leaders described approaches to education that do not take into account their different cultures of learning, curriculum and textbooks that ignore their histories and contributions to Canadian society and a gross under-representation of minorities in the teaching and school administrative staff. Clearly there are examples of good practices and projects, like the Pathways to Education Project in Ontario and a school I visited in Toronto. But, it is vital for Canada’s future that more is done to fully recognize the challenges that many immigrant and minority children face and to address these from the earliest school years and throughout the learning experience.

4. Equally it is well documented that for some minority communities, including some sectors of the Asian Canadian and immigrant community, consistently higher than average educational achievements for young people do not translate into access to professional and skilled employment and wages commensurate with their educational outcomes. This disconnect between education and employment must be tackled by government as an important issue of concern.

5. 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. A cycle of poverty for some communities is set in place from which it will be difficult or impossible to escape. Both federal and provincial governments have useful legislation and policies in the field of employment equity. However there is a substantial implementation gap that is widely acknowledged both by government and civil society. Standards and requirements must be better enforced and penalties must be imposed to ensure that Canada’s workplaces, both public and private, truly reflect the diversity present in society and live up to the promise of equality. Government must lead by example of robust efforts and measurable achievements in recruiting, retaining and promoting minorities to senior roles in the public service, ministries and departments. Government workplaces should be the first examples of enabling environments for the advancement of minorities.

6. Political participation and representation is a key minority issue, enabling minorities to have a voice in decision making bodies. However at the federal, provincial and municipal levels minorities are extremely poorly represented in political structures and institutions in Canada. Minorities themselves must be more proactive in their own engagement and participation in political processes. However more must be done to ensure that minorities are empowered to do so and attention must be given by all political actors, including political parties, to improve the representation of minorities.

7. There is a deep level of frustration among minority communities that highly qualified and skilled workers have been encouraged to migrate to Canada, only to find on their arrival that their qualifications are not recognized at the provincial level. They are unable to gain employment in their former professions despite critical shortages, including of doctors and nurses in some regions. I was told of numerous cases of professionals who described being recruited when practicing their professions in their home countries but have faced lengthy, expensive and unexpected hurdles to satisfy the credentialing requirements in the various provinces in Canada. Meanwhile they are forced to resort to take on low skilled, low waged, precarious employment for years. For some, the difficulties experienced have led to their living in conditions of hardship and poverty. The cliché of ‘doctors driving taxi cabs’ resonates as reality for many minority professionals in Canada.

I understand that this is a complex issue and that Federal and provincial governments are beginning a collaborative process to develop a framework for addressing this important issue together with professional regulatory bodies. However this is a long-standing problem and efforts to find solutions appear to be still at an embryonic stage. Effective solutions should be put in place as a matter of urgency.

8. Every community I talked with raised serious issues of policing, including Montreal North, the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, Regent Park and Jane and Finch in Toronto. The concerns included racial profiling as a systemic practice, over-policing of some communities in which minorities form a large percentage of the population and disturbing allegations of excessive use of force leading to deaths particularly of young Black males. Perceptions persist that the police act with impunity in some localities and that investigations are not conducted by independent authorities. Minorities feel that the justice system is failing them and that mechanisms of redress, including Human Rights Commissions are inaccessible, underfunded and under threat. It is essential that investigations into serious allegations of police misconduct are carried out by bodies that are perceived by the communities to be independent and that mechanisms of civilian oversight are established. I expressed these concerns in a meeting with the Montreal police.

9. While on the one hand, Members of the Muslim communities in every city that I visited, reported that they feel there is certainly freedom to practice their religion in Canada, on the other hand, government policies post 9/11 have made them feel targeted, profiled and harassed. They say they have been indiscriminately subjected to unfair and unjust treatment by federal and provincial authorities, the media and others. Muslim and Arab communities described to me deep anxiety and fear. They fear speaking out about their concerns and expect a possible backlash against them if they seek avenues of redress. They are concerned about racial profiling and the unsubstantiated use of Security Certificates. They perceive they have a second class citizenship as compared to non-Muslim Canadians when they are abroad and require the support and assistance of the Canadian authorities and consular services. Steps must be taken to address these concerns, answer allegations of unfair treatment, and to build positive relations and confidence among communities that feel targeted by national security legislation.

10. Canada’s Constitution recognizes the authority of provincial governments in such fields as education, employment, the delivery of health care, social housing, and social services. These are critical responsibilities with respect to equality in the protection of social and economic rights. The Federal government of Canada, however, has the unavoidable responsibility for ensuring that Canada meets its international obligations in all fields of human rights. The Federal government must be the guarantor of human rights and establish mechanisms that meet this requirement. The current practice has created an uneven and unclear enforcement system that varies between provinces. Human Rights Commissions have an essential role to play in the promotion and protection of human rights, but the jurisdiction of the federal Commission is severely limited and the Provincial bodies are under-resourced, under threat and have been abolished in some provinces. This has led many communities that I talked with to lose faith in the effectiveness of these critical enforcement bodies. The Federal government, in close cooperation with provincial authorities, must work towards stronger mechanisms of cooperation to guarantee consistent enforcement with respect to obligations under the provisions of international treaties to which Canada is a party, particularly in the area of non-discrimination and equality and the implementation of the rights of persons belonging to minority groups.


Ms. Gay McDougall (United States) was appointed as the first holder of the post of UN Independent Expert on minority issues in July 2005. The mandate of the Independent Expert was established to promote implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, and to identify challenges as well as successful practices in regard to minority issues.

Learn more about the mandate and work of the Independent Expert: