The Visible Minority Construct

19 minute read

The term “visible minority” is an archaic BUT necessary social construct that is in need of a facelift…implications for human resources (HR) professionals in the Federal Public Service.

Opinion Series

Part 1 – History of representation in the public service

In the federal public service, when it comes to representation at the executive table for visible minorities, Indigenous peoples and Canadians who are differently able, Employment Equity is at a standstill. It is time for HR professionals to lead again and engage the public service in a renewed conversation on employment equity. Even though this text focuses on the construct of “visible minority”, the points being raised can easily extend to Indigenous peoples and Canadians who are differently able. For these two groups, we equally need to unpack the historical underlying assumptions behind the Employment Equity Act(theAct) to find solutions to underrepresentation in the public service that are not rooted in the past, but are firmly planted in the present, with a view towards the future.

Visible minority – an outdated term

In Canada, we have come to accept the term “visible minority”, as a categorization of people who have nothing in common except for a shade of skin. The Employment Equity Actdefines visible minorities as " people, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour. ". The construction of the “visible minority” category for the purposes of employment equity draws upon the historical perceptions of racism and societal disadvantages that ensue. Such a categorization pre-supposes a world where we are divided between the dominant Caucasians and the subordinate non-Caucasians. For the purposes of “race categorization”, you are either Caucasian, non-Caucasian or Aboriginal. Oddly enough, some of the so-called “visible minorities” have come to accept this construct, although it has little relevance to their current reality. I am part of the so-called Vis Minwho finds the term endearing; for one it was a radical departure from the N-word that, growing up, I was so accustomed to, and secondarily, I was lumped-in with others through the old adage “misery loves company”. The term “visible minority” did simplify a worldview now molded into an “us & them” mentality. Who was, or is, a visible minority, may never have been entirely clear but all non-Caucasians had an intrinsic knowledge of the core meaning behind “them”. The term has graced our legal, political, organizational and social landscapes for more than thirty years. So, what happened over the past 30-odd years that has gotten the term “visible minority” to fall from grace, to such an extent that even a convert like me is arguing for a facelift of a very tired social construct?

Many others have raised concerns with this construct. Frances Woolley wrote an opinion piece in 2017 in the Globe and Mail under the title: ‘Visible minority:’ A misleading concept that ought to be retired. Charles N. Farah, wrote in the Ottawa Citizen in 2018 that ‘Visible minority’ is an offensive term. He concluded by stating: “In my opinion, the government’s visible minority category is Eurocentric…is paternalistic and autocratic and is divisive, as it differentiates between Canadians.” The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called on Canada to "reflect further" on the use of the term visible minorities. And, Douglas Todd wrote in the Vancouver Sun in 2017 that: “Visible minority” is now a meaningless term in Metro Vancouver and Toronto. There is a consistent chorus of voices asking for a paradigm shift, when it comes to the categorization of people as non-White in colour or non-Caucasian in race. The majority of this chorus opposes the use of the term, either based on its racist nature or the fact that it does not describe our current reality. Some even argue that Caucasians are now the minority. Regardless of your objection to the term, the reality is that its use has fast tracked social progress through integration, and if logic dictates that the construct requires an update, it is because it hides necessary distinctions that are required to understand how different visible minority groups compare with one another on employment outcomes and measures. To object to the use of the term is not cosmetic. It is more fundamental and is very much rooted in the origins of the 1984 Royal Commission on Equality in Employment Report (The Abella Report) and the foundations of the Employment Equity Act.

To provide some historical context, when the term was introduced in the early 1980s, Canada was looking backward at a legacy of brutal, overt and unapologetic societal racism, which permeated in the workplace. Whether one considers, to name a few, historical wrongs committed by past governments against Chinese Canadians, or Canada’s legacy of anti-black racism, which traces its origins to slavery in the 16th century, or the uprooting and incarceration of Japanese Canadians in 1942, or our immigration policy, which had a racial origin bias and clearly drew a line between Caucasian and non-Caucasian immigrants, it is clear that our past is marred in a language of hate. Such outward display of intolerance is still part of the public and political discourse; for example, one just has to consider the rhetoric around The Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices(2015), or the Quebec Charter of Values(2015; 2017).

In the early 1980s the term visible minority came to symbolize an attempt to look forward. The term took prominence from the Abella Report, which guided us to never look back. It was a useful social representation to capture the state of disadvantages that many hard-working Canadians had to endure. The Report revealed evidence that “visible minorities”, women, Aboriginal peoples and differently-abled Canadians experienced lower participation rates in the labor force, high unemployment and underemployment rates, occupational segregation and low-income levels; ultimately being the consequences and effects of systemic discrimination. Although the term was presented for the purposes of the Employment Equity Act, in the absence of another official definition, it is now used far beyond the activities related to employment equity. The term has extended to other fields beyond employment, including health research, policing, social services, etc.

Racism exists

The introduction of the construct was timely. Canada’s change in immigration policy opened the door to more and more immigrants of many different notable ethnicities. In the late 1950s, 85 percent of the total number of immigrants came from Europe. By the beginning of the 1980s, the percentage from Asia had increased to 35 percent, and 8 percent came from Africa. There has been a dramatic growth of this population in recent years. According to the 2011 National Household Survey (NHS), approximately 19%, or close to one-fifth, of the Canadian population are members of visible minority groups (Statistics Canada, 2013). This represents an increase from 16% in 2006 (Statistics Canada, 2010) and from an estimated less than 2% in 1971. According to Statistics Canada's population projections, the proportion of Canada's foreign-born population could reach between 24.5% and 30.0% by 2036. It was, and is, indeed convenient to lump, into an easy social construct that is “visible minority”. Since its introduction, the term helped unearth societal beliefs that South Asian, Chinese, Black, Filipino, Latin American, Arab, Southeast Asian, West Asian, Korean and Japanese, are inferior. Philippe Rushton, professor at Western University, argued in 1989 that genetic determination of intelligence is bequeathed by heredity. Although, the case he made was racist, these beliefs were quite prominent in organizational culture and deep-rooted in the Canadian psyche. It was generally believed and argued that visible minorities did not have access to positions of authority because they did not possess the qualities required for these positions.

Many would argue that not much has changed from days past. In 2013, Chicha and Charest wrote a Report for the Centre d’études ethniques des universités montréalaises, in which they concluded that equality in employment is far from being achieved, due to systemic discrimination and a lack of engagement from political actors. In 2018, in a Globe and Mail article, Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes is unequivocal that: “Systemic racism exists,” …citing a statistic that less than 5 per cent of CEOs are non-Caucasian women.”

Part 2 – How government HR can respond to today’s reality

In the federal public service, there has been substantial progress from the early 80s, when the public service was almost White-only mostly comprised of Caucasians. Employment equity, as a blunt instrument, has led to meaningful change for organizations that are subject to the Act, or for organizations that are subject to the Federal Government Contractors Program. The representation of visible minorities in the federal public service, changed from 3.8% to almost 15%. Federally regulated private-sector workforce, which represents approximately 3.7% of the Canadian workforce, also saw significant changes from 5% in 1987 to over 22% in 2016. These numbers could be further refined and represent less than 10% of the workforce; however, as a general indication, they suggest a level of progress. Therefore, it is easy to conclude that the term did what it was intended to do, which indeed makes it difficult to ask for a reboot. Yet, that is exactly what is required to continue our progress.

Unlike others, I am not advocating for the elimination, or a replacement, of the construct. In recent years, there has been a plethora of terms used as euphemism for “visible minority”: racialized groups, racialized persons, racialized Canadians, racial minorities, ethnocultural diversity, marginalized ethnic groups, etc. Such efforts are futile, as a rose by any other name is still a rose. Race is still a dominant theme in our society. We are far from being post-racial, certainly not with baby boomers dominating the landscape. As well, there are still fundamental problems to solve within the public service when it comes to representation of visible minorities, particularly at the executive levels in proportion to their representation overall. What is required is not a pointless debate on the construct or its origin. Rather I propose that the Federal Public Service needs to be more critical of the underlying assumptions behind the term, and in so doing, start crafting new solutions to new problems for 2018 and beyond.

Responding to a new paradigm

HR professionals in the federal public service need to question the underlying assumptions of systemic discrimination contained in the Employment Equity Actand the Abella Report. Parisa Mahboubi, in an article in the Globe and Mail in 2017, concluded “Discrimination is often blamed... However, that answer is too easy.” I tend to agree with Mrs. Mahboubi. The construction of the Abella Report and the Employment Equity Actare rooted in brutal societal racism. In 1984, it was rampant. The question is: Do we still have the same reality in 2018, as we had in 1984 within the federal public service? Most observers would conclude that the mindset has shifted, as a result in part of HR implications and leadership showed by unions, employees and managers. Misguided attempts, such as the Public Service Commission’s name-blind recruitment pilot project, tend to perpetuate this narrative of systemic discrimination in the public service. And although the end result of the pilot shows no sign of bias from managers in their recruitment practice, what will be remembered by most is that hiring managers were de factoperceived as discriminating on the basis of the name of an individual. This is not to suggest that we don’t have managers with racist views in government. Individual experiences abound of visible minority group members claiming racism. We should be inspired by #MeToo, #TimesUp, #IdleNoMore, and be more inclined to believe visible minorities when they do come forward.

We still need to cleanse the system of individuals who still hold stereotypical views of visible minorities and who actively act on those views. However, the question is: within the public service is racism systemic in our policies, practices, culture, rules, beliefs, attitudes, etc.? I would suggest that it is not the case. Many past and present brave deputies have taken a leadership role and have worked tirelessly to ensure a representative public service. The institutional commitment to representation overall has been massive. Every department requires an employment equity plan, has a manager and staff responsible for diversity, has likely a diversity committee and provides diversity training for managers and employees. Most departments evaluate managers on some aspects of advancing diversity. Most departments have countless networks for social gatherings for employees. Other departments provide formal mentoring programs for designated groups. Considering these massive efforts and investments to enact the provisions of the Employment Equity Act, it seems clear that the Actis no longer sufficient to explain the underrepresentation of visible minorities, particularly at the most senior executive levels. The centerpiece of the Actis an employment system review to eliminate all instances of systemic discrimination. I firmly believe we have accomplished that objective in the federal public service.

Second, the current crop of managers and executives do not hold the same views on race, as the managers and executives that were part of the system in 1984. This is evident in the opinions on employment equity shared by successive cohorts of participants at the Institute on Governance Executive Leadership Program. This is a program in which departments send their emerging talent to further develop their leadership skills. This program offers a forum for executives and aspiring executives for frank discussions on all aspects of public service, including employment equity. Most often, these cadre of executives are eager to have a representative public service, but often find limits, imposed by archaic HR rules, in their desire to achieve representation. The fundamental difference between 1984 and 2018 is that, refreshingly, the new cadre of executives do not question the necessity or legitimacy of representation. If executive malfeasance was the dominant theme in 1984, it is unlikely to be the same in 2018. HR professionals have more champions willing to undertake the hard work of representation than at any point in time in the past 30 years.

Third, for HR professionals, the construct “visible minority” needs unpacking. Visible minorities are often treated as a monolithic category, ignoring the diversity within this growing population; for example, differences by nativity, ethnic origin, and other characteristics. Each group has its own range of economic and social differentiation. One must be aware of how the amalgamations of different groups affect the analysis of data concerned with visible minorities in Canada. For example, visible minority immigrants differ from Canadian-born visible minorities in important ways, including official language proficiency, cultural backgrounds, and familiarity with Canadian society and institutions.

In addition, Canadian society in general holds different stereotypical views depending on the composition of the visible minority population. Stereotypical views of Chinese are fundamentally different then stereotypical views of Blacks or Arabs. These views have a differentiated impact in employment for each group. As such, labour market disparities vary among these groups. The overwhelming majority of visible minorities are South Asian (25 per cent), Chinese (21 per cent) and black (16 per cent). Chinese employment earnings, on average, are 91 per cent of non-visible minority earnings while Black earnings are about 73 per cent, according to the 2016 Census. HR professionals need to understand their employment equity data beyond the amalgamation represented by the construct “visible minority”. It is no longer about system reviews, but more important, HR professionals need to understand differentiation between and within groups. To do so, HR professionals need to guide a conversation on what is meant by Diversity and what is meant by Inclusion. These are two different concepts and yet, they are used interchangeably. The first is a statement of recognition. However, Inclusion is a paradigm with its own disciplinary matrix. And it requires the “system” to adapt to the individual, as opposed to the individual integrating into the system.

Fourth, there is a pressing need for HR professionals to move away from the seemingly unifying view presented by the construct “visible minority”. For one, as a Black man of Haitian origin, I have nothing in common with a Black man from Jamaica, except for a shade of skin. It is more likely that I would find cultural alignment with a Caucasian francophone from Québec than some brethren from Jamaica. This is a difficult concept to apprehend, but it is nonetheless true. To a large extent in the federal public service we have overcome the strife of ethnicity. We have, by and large, won the fight between the colour of skin and the content of character. We can easily accommodate ethnicity. Most employees are working collegially with all shades of colour. However, we still need to tackle the differentiation brought about by culture. And yes, ethnicity differs from culture. I may be from a different ethnic group than a Caucasian Canadian; this, however, does not mean I am from a different culture.

In his book, The Hidden Dimension, Edward T. Hall referred to culture as a language. In essence, I speak Haitian culture and I speak Canadian culture. But I don’t speak Jamaican culture or Nigerian culture. The importance of this differentiation for HR professionals is to understand the variability of life experiences within the “visible minority” group construct. But secondarily, it is to recognize that visible minorities hold violent racist attitudes and stereotypes against each other, as evidenced by the case of Emile Wickham, an Afro-Caribbean, who was asked to pre-pay at the Hong Shing Chinese restaurant before receiving his meal. The Ontario Human Rights tribunal’s ruling stated: “This case illustrates that the restaurant did not extend the applicant the benefit of the doubt, or assumption of his decency as a black person, rather he was presumed to be deviant.” In essence, it is not because you are a visible minority that you do not carry the seeds of racism and intolerance. HR professionals will need to devote the same efforts, as was done for Caucasians in the 1980s, to the visible minority groups in forging a conversation around intolerance. Where it was convenient in 1984 to have an “us” – visible minorities” and “them”- Caucasians” mentality, the reality in 2018 is that among the “us” there could be more acts of stereotyping and racism, then we would find actually in “them”.

Finally, HR professionals in the federal public service need to come to terms with rejecting the notion of labour market availability (LMA) as a measure of the proportion of visible minority that should be represented at the executive levels. This measure is flawed for a number of reasons. One, it does not recognize the massive underemployment of immigrants that occur in society and has also no recognition that there is a multitude of visible minorities who could do executive roles in the federal public service, by virtue of their human capital acquired in their country of origin. However, here in Canada, many are forced to work way below their capacity. As such, when Statistics Canada conducts its LMA and arrives at a percentage in the external market, this percentage represents a gross underestimation of the capacity available. The problem stems from the fact that this percentage is then utilized to justify a false sense of accomplishment that the federal public service has made progress. It would be more impactful for HR professionals to use internal metrics – the overall representation of visible minorities within the public service – and posit that everything being equal, this representation should be at every hierarchical level. The logic of such a change is sound. At present, the overall percentage is approximately 15%, we should therefore expect for that percentage to be equally distributed across all levels. Hence, the percentage being used (9%) to justify that the federal public service is meeting its employment objectives at the executive level, does not help the institution move forward. If there is a process of ghettoization in particular departments or job groups, it is incumbent on HR professionals to understand what is at play and find meaningful solutions for the federal public service.

In summary, HR professionals must:

  • Unpack the construct “visible minority” and become more comfortable with the less comfortable and less comfortable with the more comfortable
  • Guide the public service away from 1984 solutions to 2018 problems
  • Generate a renewed conversation that differentiates inclusion from integration as policy options
  • Develop new metrics for progress on employment equity, beyond labour market availability
  • Recognize and act on the notion that systemic racism in the federal public service, as it existed in 1984, would be fundamentally different in 2018, if it is still a reality

My argument takes note of the fact that we have the most educated, open-minded, culturally conscientious cohort of leaders ever in the history of the public service. That we have overcome ethnicity, but we are still struggling with culture. That it is a misappropriation of concepts, when we interchange “Diversity” and “Inclusion”. Diversity is a state of differences amongst individuals. Inclusion is an operating paradigm that flows from assimilation, integration and now inclusion. I advocate that most employees in the public service are not ready for the Inclusion paradigm. I am also advocating that the Employment Equity Act, as a tool, cannot explain the underrepresentation at all hierarchical levels of visible minorities in the federal public service. Employment Equity cannot explain the thinning-out of visible minorities that happens at the EX04, EX05 and Deputy levels. It cannot explain the virtual absence of visible minority women within the EX cadre, considering that over the past 30 years, women in general have come to represent approximately 50% of the population of EXs in the federal public service.

Faced with these realities, HR professionals need to move beyond the tried and true and start seeking to understand new underlying problems that require urgent solutions. We must never be complacent. The success of our social contract rests on making someone like me – first generation immigrant, Black, coming from poverty and being raised by a hardworking single mother - to believe that I can accomplish my true destiny, based on the strength of my character. If this belief disappears, because we collectively fail to ensure representation at all levels, then the dream of an integrated multi-cultural and multi-ethnic Canada also disappears.

About the author

Gérard Étienne

Gérard Étienne

Vice President - Diversity and Inclusion

Prior to joining the IOG, he worked as Vice-President Operations for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. I was accountable for providing national leadership and management for the development and implementation of national operational policies, practices and processes for the delivery of a multi-faceted comprehensive, cohesive and integrated science-based policy and regulatory inspection and audit regime for the agricultural, fish and seafood, and agri-food sectors.

He has completed his comprehensive exams for a Ph.D. in Industrial Relations. Université de Montréal. (thesis pending). In addition, he has an M.B.A. Financial Services. Université du Québec à Montréal; a Master of Industrial Relations. Université du Québec à Hull; a Master of Education. University of Ottawa; a Bachelor of Social Sciences. University of Ottawa; a Bachelor of Administration. University of Ottawa. He was conferred the designation of Fellow of the Institute of Canadian Bankers, with honours and he has a, Certificate in Public Sector Leadership and Governance, from the University of Ottawa, Center for Public Management and Policy.

He is passionate about diversity, human rights, employment equity.

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