Chapter 13 Chapter Overview & Learning Objectives

Diversity and Representation

The issue of Canada’s population diversity raises the question of how fairly and proportionally each major segment of the population is represented in the country’s political institutions. We have in mind mainly such traditionally marginalized segments as racial, ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities (including visible minorities), as well as women and Indigenous peoples. It is also common nowadays to broaden coverage to include age, sexual orientation, and ability. What has been done to correct any gross underrepresentation and facilitate more proportional representation? What additional reforms could be implemented?

The term mosaic has often been used—in contrast to the melting pot idea in the United States—to describe the tendency of Canadians to accept, maintain, and promote the cultural heritage of ethnocultural minorities. However, what does it mean to recognize diversity, and how is this to be accomplished? As a representative democracy, this is where the notion of descriptive representation comes into play. That is, there is an expectation for Canada’s diversity to be mirrored in its political institutions.

This is where the notion of democratic deficit comes into play, because the composition of many political institutions does not live up to expectations of proportionality. Debates can and do arise as to what diversities should be represented, and how to categorize Canadians who exhibit multiple cultural identities. Yet another major factor is that Canadians from minority cultural groupings are subject to assimilation into the larger Anglophone and Francophone segments of the population through marriage, education, and lifestyles. Perhaps one of the most controversial and complicated issue of representation is with the Indigenous community. Representation among Indigenous communities does not just transcend federal, provincial, and municipal levels, but also other internal and external organizations. Understanding these set of complex network of relationships is essential in providing better solutions to Indigenous underrepresentation.

The status and experience of each traditionally marginalized grouping is unique. The workings of the single member plurality electoral system make it difficult to achieve greater diversity of representation. It may be attributable to past experiences with discrimination, absence of role models, inadequate financial and other resources, or other commitments. Failure at the electoral level, in turn, has ramifications for underrepresentation in both the legislature and political executive. Financial subsidies and targeted recruitment initiatives have assisted traditionally marginalized groups to gain increased representation in these areas.

Interestingly, however, those political institutions that depend upon their positions being filled through appointment, and not election, tend to provide diverse population segments with better or more proportional representation, at least in the early years of the twenty-first century. Such examples include the Senate, judicial courts, and public service.

Prime ministers like to establish connections with marginal groups by appointing their leaders as senators. Appointments to the Supreme Court of Canada are few in number (nine at any given time) and based on merit; thus, as more women and minority group members go to law school and gain legal experience, they gain eligibility for judicial appointment.

While federal public service appointments are largely based on merit, the principle of employment equity is also now used for qualified members of four traditionally underrepresented groupings: women, Indigenous people, visible minorities, and people with disabilities.

Finally, there is the closely related matter of the relationship between government and civil society. That is, members of some minority groupings follow religious or other cultural practices that are different from the mainstream, which necessitates reasonable accommodation being made. This is often difficult to achieve and is frequently the subject of controversy.

Professor Cheryl Collier has published extensively on sexism in Canadian federal and provincial legislatures as well as on comparative social policy, feminism, and federalism. Her research applies to this chapter’s professor profile as her work extends to underrepresentation and diversity issues in government.  This chapter’s debate focusses on Indigenous groups and whether Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups integrate into a common political system.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, students should be able to:

  • identify and understand the importance of diversity and how it is represented in Canadian democracy;
  • discuss how well diversity is represented in the civil (or public) service, in civil society, and through the judicial courts;
  • grasp the steps that have been taken to reduce Canada’s democratic deficit; and
  • discuss the experiences of Indigenous people in respect to the matter of representation in Canada.
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