Canada ready to spar with UN over ‘visible minorities’
NationalPost.com – news/Canada/World
Jul 5, 2011. By Steven Edwards, Postmedia News – United Nations
Canada faces a new grilling before a United Nations anti-racism watchdog — but will defy the Geneva-based body over the question the government’s use of the term “visible minorities.”
A delegation to be led by Citizenship and Immigration Canada will tell the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that Canada considers the term to be appropriate.
The committee signalled when it grilled Canada four years ago that the government was being racist by using the term.
Obliged to respond, the government had academics research the term’s history nationally and internationally, held an open workshop to gather more input, and canvassed provincial and territorial governments on their use of the term in Canada.
“The Government of Canada … has no plans of changing its standard usage,” Ottawa says bluntly in a report now before the 18-member committee, comprised mainly of academics and former diplomats from around the world.
The committee members ruled in 2007 that they were “concerned” the government’s use of the term contravened the “aims and objectives” of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which entered into force in 1969 and was ratified by Canada a year later.
“The use of the term seemed to somehow indicate that ‘whiteness’ was the standard, all others differing from that being visible,” said committee member Patrick Thornberry, a British international and human rights law professor.
Now the committee, which meets twice a year, is scheduling Canada among 11 countries for a session expected early in 2012 — even though it has seen only 100 of the 174 member states since Canada’s last appearance.
Ottawa indicates the term ‘visible minorities’ is simply a reference to one of four groups the government seeks to protect against possible discrimination in the workplace. The others are Aboriginal Peoples, the disabled and women.
“The term is specific to the administration of the Employment Equity Act …” the document before the committee says. “The act is similar to a ‘special measure’ taken for the purpose of securing advancement of certain racial or ethnic groups as referred to in … the convention.”
It’s not clear how much the government spent on the various inquiries aimed at addressing the UN concern, but the workshop, which was attended by government officials, academics and representatives from non-governmental organizations, appears to have sowed confusion.
“There were divided views amongst the participants with respect to the use of the term,” says the government document.
In addition to the studies, the government also commissioned a paper to review how the Employment Equity Act uses the term.
“While other terms were considered in the research, no other term fully encompassed the goals of addressing labour market disadvantage faced by groups designated by the EEA,” the government document says.
Use of the term by provincial and territorial governments varies, Ottawa tells the UN. For example, it does not appear in Ontario government statutes or regulations. Neither is it used in Nunavut, whose population is 85% Inuit. The Human Rights Code of the Manitoba government, meanwhile, opts for terms that include “ancestry, including colour and perceived race,” as well as “ethnic background or origin.”
More than five million Canadians — representing 16.2% of the population — have identified themselves as members of a ‘visible minority’ group, the government document says.
It identifies the three largest visible minority groups as South Asians, Chinese and Blacks.
“The term ‘visible minority’ is not used for the purposes of the equality guarantees in either the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian Human Rights Act, or any of the provincial or territorial human rights codes, all of which are key components of Canada’s anti-discrimination policy,” the document says.
The Employment Equity Act defines “visible minorities” as “persons other than Aboriginal People, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour.”
Experts in Canada say that the act, in identifying certain groups, nevertheless aims to ensure “positive” or “reverse” discrimination on their behalf.
But to the UN committee, highlighting a certain group did not appear to be consistent with Article One of the UN anti-racism convention, which says racial discrimination occurs when equitable treatment is upset by “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour descent, or national ethnic origin.”
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