The Toronto Star
Wed. Jun. 16, 2004.

Our invisible minorities

As politicians feverishly seek out political support from ethnic minorities, it is striking that they fail to seek out these sam

In his May visit to Canada this year, the Aga Khan commented, "Canada is admirably positioned to share with the developing world her experience in humane governance to support pluralism." Unfortunately, this perspective doesn't stand up to the scrutiny of structural and cultural realities of pluralistic power sharing at home.

As politicians feverishly seek out political support from ethnic minorities in larger cities, it is striking that they fail to seek out these same people to run Canada's boards and commissions. This case in point is the influential area of Cabinet appointments to agencies, boards and commissions.

The visible minority demographic is 13.4 per cent (2001 census). Yet, at this powerful federal leadership level, they are relatively non-existent. Or, you could say governance is non-plural or perennially bicultural.

All the while in several ridings in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, visible minorities make up the majority of constituents.

If we look at a sampling of the approximately 170 federal agencies, boards and commissions, using survey standards of 10 per cent, it would tell a rather exclusive story. In fact, as far as one can tell, the following agencies conspicuously have zero representation of visible minorities.

In culture agencies such as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, Canadian Museum of Civilization and the National Gallery.

The same goes for commercial agencies such as the Canadian International Trade Tribunal, Canada Deposit Insurance Corporation, Copyright Board of Canada, Competition Tribunal and the Industry Task Force on Spamming.

Ditto for the Human Rights Commission, RCMP Senior Commissioners and External Review Committee, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the National Capital Commission.

The Public Policy Forum's February 2004 report on Governor-in-Council Appointments Reform states: "According to the December 2000 report by the Auditor-General of Canada, the government has improved the gender balance and geographic representation on boards of directors but there is no standard process to promote greater diversity in appointments."

The Spence Stuart/Rotman Report found that all boards in Canada have only 1.7 per cent visible minority representation.

Recently, many studies profiled in the media have shown that Canada has as much work to do as the rest of the world in realizing its potential for pluralism.

The subtle tokenism of inclusion when scrutinized by research exposes that while visible minorities accounted for one-third of economic growth in the past 10 years, they earned 11 per cent less than the Canadian average in 1991. This gap grew to 14.5 per cent in 2000 and is predicted to deepen (Conference Board of Canada-2004 report: Making A Visible Difference).

StatsCan's September, 2003, Ethnic Diversity Survey reports that almost one-third of black Canadians say they have experienced discrimination or unfair treatment in the past five years. The report showed blacks earned about $6,000 less on average than other Canadians in 2000.

The 2002-03 Annual Report on Employment Equity in the federal public service indicates that progress is slowest for visible minorities who number some 7.4 per cent of the overall public service. Only 4.2 per cent are in senior management and only one is a deputy minister. The visible minority national labour market availability is 12.7 per cent and in cities where 87 per cent of Canadians live, their presence is between 35 to 50 per cent and growing.

It's not that the federal government cannot do better. There are a few good examples. The Canada Council for the Arts and the Prime Minister's Advisory Council on Cities both have about one-third of their membership from visible minority and aboriginal backgrounds.

Visit any hospital, university or high-tech company and you will see legions of highly qualified minorities. Why do successive cabinets have such a hard time finding them for federal agencies?

The Aga Khan is right in stating that embracing pluralism builds security and peace. But I suggest that before we "send our pluralism `experts' around the world," as he recommends, perhaps we could use them in Ottawa so that by 2005 one-third of all appointees to agencies, boards and commissions will be either visible minority or aboriginal "to promote humane governance to support pluralism" at home.

If parties believe that public agencies should be run by boards that reflect the public, they should start working hard toward that goal.

It is not bizarre, as some opinion-makers have said, to want equitable visible minority and aboriginal representation; it is merely democracy in practice.

If a post-election cabinet casts a wider net than it has in the past, it is likely to find even more people who are well-qualified for the positions.

Like any corporate objective, if you do not identify the problem and set targets, nothing will get achieved.

Sharon Fernandez is an artist living and working in Ottawa