Diversity and Rights: The Evolution of Pluralism

Niha Shahzad

Canada is often lauded by other countries for its policies on equality and diversity. In 1986, the UN even awarded the Nansen Award to the people of Canada for their constant contribution to the cause of refugees, the only time the award was given to a nation. But the panel on equity and diversity at Canada’s Policy Transformations conference discussed how much Canada has actually changed with diversity, immigration and equity over the last 50 years. Panelists included Emmett Macfarlane, associate professor at University of Waterloo, Antje Ellermann associate professor of political science at University of British Columbia, and Marva Wisdom, director of the Black Experience Project.

Emmett MacFarlane began by outlining how Canadian legal cases have set the precedent of protecting multiculturalism, gender equity and indigenous rights. One example was the 1990 Keegstra case, in which the Supreme Court decided that hate speech laws protecting minority groups are indeed constitutional. However, the ups and downs of the Canadian legal system means that more recent rulings do not always adhere to the principles of previous decisions from two decades before , though precedent has been set. In addition, MacFarlane noted that having all-white Supreme Court judges affects the verdicts when it comes to cases related to diversity, religious freedoms, and hate speech. Similarly, the balance of genders on the Supreme Court bench affects verdicts as well. According to MacFarlane, female judges are 20 -30% more likely to rule in favor of equality claimants.  Though the Trudeau government has ushered in some change,  MacFarlane said he sees little evidence to support the claim that the Trudeau government is pursuing equity. For example, he pointed to the Trudeau government’s attempts to advance reconciliation and said he does not see a nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous people. It will take more than consultation, said MacFarlane; it will take different ways about thinking about law, such as indigenous forms of law, to truly achieve such a relationship. If an Indigenous Supreme Court judge were appointed, their challenge would be to shift court institutions and convince other judges to think differently about law.

While legal interpretation and institutionalization on multiculturalism has been slow, Dr. Ellermann provide a glimpse into the rapid evolution of Canada’s immigration and refugee policies.  Canada’s immigration program has three streams: economic, humanitarian, and family reunification. When Canada passed the 1976 Immigration Act, the country accepted the responsibility of family reunification; the Act noted that when Canada accepted immigrants, it was “also duty bound to accept the relatives,” which ended race-based family reunification. However, after some time Canada began to limit the admissions of parents and grandparents, who were crucial support systems to immigrants. From the 1990s to 2014, the number of grandparents and parents admitted per year declined from 40,000 a year to 5,000. However, the spousal admission rate for immigrants greatly increased during the period.

Canada’s admissions system for economic immigrants has been praised internationally. After 1976, immigrants were accepted on the basis that they could fill low labour occupations. This shifted in the 1990s to a system  that ranked immigrants based on human capital. This, however, meant that low-skilled sectors were vulnerable to shortages, and a shift towards accepting more foreign temporary workers began. In 2006, for the first time in Canadian history, the number of temporary migrants admitted surpassed the total number of immigrants in all three permanent streams combined. Highly skilled workers may be admitted through the economic stream , but lower skilled workers with temporary status are left without support, without family, working for less. Ellerman noted that lower skilled laborers are what hold up the system in which higher-skilled labourers toil. Thus, the admissions system must change to correct the imbalance.

On a more positive note, Canada’s refugee system is recognized worldwide; Canada was the first country to introduce gender guidelines for refugee acceptance in 1993, and has resettled more than half a million refugees since 1976. Some criticize Canada’s refugee system for creating a two-tier system where those who claim upon arrival are “jump the queue,” though Ellerman challenged this characterization of the system. Another issue that has been raised repeatedly by academics, advocates and policy professionals  is the Immigration Loan Program, where refugees must pay back the costs of their medical screening overseas and flight to Canada. These loans, Ellermann stated, often hinder the successful integration of refugees into the country as they start life in their new country in debt.

The integration experience of immigrants can vary widely. Marva Wisdom, the final panellist, gave a brief look into her own story and the experiences of Black Canadians living in Canada. She outlined the Black Experience Project,  a study the GTA in conjunction with Toronto, York, and Peel Police Forces, which chronicles the experiences of a multitude of groups such as Somali Muslims, Jamaican immigrants, refugees, and second- and third-generation Black Canadians. The study indicated that 62% of non-Black people see Black people as somewhat negative; 18% said very negative, while only a mere 11% have a somewhat positive impression, and 1% very positive. On a positive side, 57% of people said that Black people are the same as everyone else, but only 33% said that media portrayals of Black people are inaccurate. 30% pf people agree that we are diverse and not all the same, but only 29% of respondents felt that history has affected our place in society.

While cultural integration, equality and legal change have been slow to progress in some cases, all panelists believed that as long as we actively change and allow dissenting voices a seat at the table, there is much hope in Canada’s future.

Niha Shahzad is in her first year of the Master of Public Policy program at the School of Public Policy and Governance. This is her second’s masters degree, having completed her first at Queen’s University. She has 3 years’ of professional work experience in marketing for various industries. Her policy interests include healthcare, global affairs, and digital governance and innovation. Outside of studying, she can be found binging Freakonomics podcasts, reading philosophy or science fiction, and practicing yoga and meditation.