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Politics New passport watermark images lacking diversity, report says

Images to be included in the new Canadian passport design.

HANDOUT/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The iconic images on Canada's new passports, unveiled with fanfare last week, short-change women and multicultural communities, says a report ordered by Passport Canada.

The passport agency hired a survey firm to "disaster check" more than a dozen of the watermark images on the pages of new passports being introduced next year, to ensure nothing offensive would be released.

Eight focus groups assembled in four cities last April found nothing "inappropriate or disturbing," but almost all said the choice of images failed to reflect Canada's diversity.

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"Participants routinely suggested that the set of images should be more representative of Canada, with emphasis on including more women and better reflecting Canada's multicultural character and heritage," says the report by Phoenix Strategic Perspectives Inc.

Younger participants also said there were too few images of contemporary Canada.

The new passport images were praised by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird in an elaborate media event last week at the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Que. — soon to be rebranded the Canadian Museum of History.

"It tells the world who we are: a nation built on freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law," he said of the mostly historic images.

The watermark set includes the Bluenose schooner, the Last Spike, Niagara Falls and the Parliament Buildings, among others. But participants repeatedly cited the absence of women, including in an image showing the evolution of the RCMP.

"What tended to elicit most critical reaction in this image was the absence of a woman in the picture depicting the RCMP," says the report. "Part of this evolution surely includes the introduction of female officers."

One image does show a statue of early feminist Nellie McClung, which some in the focus groups called "unattractive," urging use of a photograph instead.

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Another image, of Pier 21 on Halifax's waterfront to evoke immigration, "lacks people, which are needed to really connect the port to immigration."

The image of the Last Spike, completing Canada's transcontinental railroad, may show some Chinese labourers in the background, though the picture is unclear. And a totem pole and inukshuk refer to aboriginal cultures.

But general feedback was that the historic images on balance are "exclusionary," failing to reflect the diverse communities who built the country.

Passport Canada paid $53,290 for the study, which queried small groups in Coquitlam, B.C., Toronto, Sherbrooke, Que., and Halifax.

In the summer, another government institution, the Bank of Canada, came under fire after The Canadian Press reported that an image of an Asian woman on the new $100 bill was changed after focus groups raised questions about her ethnicity.

A spokesman for the bank said her Asian features were removed to give the image a "neutral ethnicity," provoking outcry from Chinese Canadian groups and others. Mark Carney, governor of the bank, later issued an apology, saying the next set of currency images would be more inclusive.

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Victor Wong, head of the Chinese Canadian National Council, said Passport Canada needs to change the imagery on the new passports.

"The photos appear to be archival, so in that respect they are a step ahead of the Bank of Canada bank-note debacle, in that the designers are using authentic Canadian images," Mr. Wong said in an e-mail from Toronto.

"However, the selection is not diverse enough and the government should make some adjustments to reflect Canada's female and diverse populations."

Anthony Morgan, a black Canadian law student articling in Ottawa, called the images "disheartening" after decades of efforts to make Canada truly multicultural.

"I feel they're a step backwards," Mr. Morgan, 27, said in an interview. "There's an outright exclusion of the true face of Canada."

He noted that no actual aboriginals are depicted, only symbols of aboriginal cultures that "give the impression they disappeared." Mr. Morgan said the government should suspend the project until more inclusive images can be chosen.

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A spokeswoman for Passport Canada said the images were tweaked slightly after the focus-group report to include visible minorities, though the additions are not readily seen.

Beatrice Fenelon said a picture of kids playing sports has a visible minority person "in a helmet in the back." And a visible minority was added to a picture of RCMP officers on horseback, though no women were included as the focus groups had recommended.

The new passport includes chip technology and watermark images designed to prevent fraud, and can be renewed for up to 10 years.

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