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Canada ‘Visible minority’: Is it time for Canada to scrap the term?

Kay Livingstone − an accomplished advocate for African-Canadians − is credited with coining the term visible minority, as part of her work to organize a national conference for racialized women in 1975. She “was determined that minority groups should not be overlooked,” said a colleague at the time. (She passed away before the conference was held, but the media picked up the term).

Nearly a decade later, Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella used the term in her report on the federal Royal Commission on Equality in Employment. Even at the time, she cautioned, that “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.”

The report led to the enactment of Canada’s Employment Equity Act in 1986. The act defines visible minorities as “persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour.”

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The term − now widely used − is uniquely Canadian. Statscan uses it as a category in connection with employment-equity policies.

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Today, many say the term is outdated (after massive shifts in the composition of Canada’s population), generalizing and may hurt some of the very people it was supposed to help by masking diverging outcomes.

In 2012, the United Nations warned Canada the term could homogenize experiences of different ethnic groups. “Its lack of precision may pose a barrier to effectively addressing the socioeconomic gaps of different ethnic groups.”

Visible minorities are no longer the minority in places such as Richmond, B.C., and Markham, Ont. − they are now the clear majority. And Statistics Canada projections show that in some other cities – including Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary – visible minorities could be the majority by 2036.

There is movement to produce more detailed data by ethnic origin. Statistics Canada is assessing the feasibility of disaggregating some of its data sets. Part of that effort is exploring whether the visible-minority concept “is still relevant in measuring inequalities in today’s labour market.” The agency is consulting with other departments, academics and community groups about the term.

The agency’s preliminary findings in one data analysis, which used census data to examine income and employment outcomes by ethnic origins, revealed differing outcomes in the labour market.

“When we use the aggregated visible-minority groups,” Statscan analyst Laetitia Martin said, “we tend to homogenize the experiences of the different minority groups and we divert the attention from where the needs are really the greatest.”

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* By data gap, we mean areas at the national level in which data are not collected or readily accessible. These could be areas where there is no ability to compare across provinces or cities, where the existing information is years out of date, published infrequently or not comparable with prior years.
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