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Carleton University economics professor Frances Woolley
Carleton University economics professor Frances Woolley

Frances Woolley

‘Visible minority:’ A misleading concept that ought to be retired Add to ...

In Canada, anyone who considers themself neither white nor aboriginal is classified by the government, for a number of purposes, as a visible minority. It is an artificial concept that has become unnecessary and counterproductive.

Ultimately, the dividing line is arbitrary. For example, Arabic people from North Africa and the Middle East are counted as “white” in the U.S. Census. Yet anyone who ticks the Arab box on Canada’s National Household Survey is counted as a visible minority – unless they tick both the white box and the Arab box. Then they’re white.

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What we really need is a box that says, “It’s complicated.”

Indeed, there is something almost racist about the assumption that whites are the standard against which anyone else is noticeably, visibly different. That may be why the United Nations Council on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has asked Canada to reflect upon its use of the term visible minority.

The Canadian government’s official line is that the term is needed to support programs that promote equal opportunity. Visible minorities are one of four groups covered by the federal Employment Equity Act. (The others are women, people with disabilities, and aboriginal Canadians). The Act requires employers to remove barriers to employment facing members those four groups, and to “correct the conditions of disadvantage in employment.”

While promoting equity is a good thing, the Employment Equity Act does so with too broad a brush. It lumps all visible minority groups together, instead of focusing on those who really are actually struggling in the labour market. As Justice Rosalie Abella wrote 30 years ago, when she chaired the Royal Commission on Equality in Employment:

“To combine all non-whites together as visible minorities for the purpose of devising systems to improve their equitable participation, without making distinctions to assist those groups in particular need, may deflect attention from where the problems are greatest.”

Perhaps it’s time to take another look at our list. If members of a visible minority group (such as Japanese-Canadians) earn about as much, on average, as Canadians of British and French ancestry do, it’s hard to believe they need the protections afforded by Employment Equity.

Alternatively, we could abandon the term “visible minorities” altogether. One way would be to narrow it down to those non-white groups that genuinely are disadvantaged. This is the approach advocated by the African Canadian Legal Clinic. They argue that, “with the notable exception of African Canadian males, ‘visible minorities’ who are native-born are for the most part not disadvantaged.”

Consequently, they argue, “policies that focus on employment or wage equity for all ‘visible minorities,’ as opposed to African Canadians in particular, or that do not focus on helping immigrants integrate into Canadian society miss the mark.”

I do not agree that employment equity should focus solely on African Canadian males. While there is a large and persistent earnings gap between African and non-visible-minority Canadians, research by Mikal Skuterud at University of Waterloo (here) and by Krishna and Ravi Pendakur (here ) has shown that some other visible minority groups also struggle in the labour market.

Rather than narrowing, we could broaden the scope of Employment Equity beyond the four designated groups. There are barriers other than skin colour that matter. Greek-Canadians earn less, on average, than most other ethnic groups (including some visible minority groups), for reasons that are not well-understood. Access to post-secondary education is a serious issue: Canadians living in rural and remote areas, boys, people whose parents were born in Canada, and whites all have lower education levels than a typical urban, visible minority child of immigrants.

As such, I agree that we should be focusing less on programs for visible minorities in general, and more on language and skill training, recognition of foreign credentials and training, as well as programs that target truly disadvantaged groups, not the children of doctors and university professors.

If we’re serious about eliminating barriers in the labour market, we should be encouraging men to enter nursing, boys to achieve in school, non-visible-minority Canadians to study mathematics and Canadians living in rural and remote areas to attend university.

A lot of people I talk to hate having to define themselves, their friends, or their family as “white” or “visible minority.” As Canadians, we don’t have to do this. We could ask about ethnicity instead. “What were the ethnic or cultural origins of your ancestors?” is a clear, unambiguous question. It is one Canadians have been asked on the Census for over a hundred years, and is currently on the National Household Survey. We could use it on other surveys as well, instead of the visible minority categorization. That’s what Australia does with its multicultural policy .

Over the years, Canada has been a world leader in immigration and diversity policy. We’ve come up with some really good ideas, like our immigration points system, which has served as a model for countries around the world. We’ve also come up with some more questionable ideas. Labeling a sizable chunk of the Canadian population “visible minorities” is one of them. It’s time the term was retired.

Frances Woolley is a professor of economics at Carleton University, where she teaches public finance. She tweets @FrancesWoolley

Follow on Twitter: @franceswoolley

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