Canadian Cultural Diversity: Gender, Minorities and Public Life

Before curtailing her recent trip to Europe to deal with the political situation at home, Governor General of Canada, Her Excellency Michaëlle Jean was participating in a discussion about Canadian culture diversity at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech on November 29, 2008.

Her blog reprints notes from two related talks:

…Canada is currently working with two diversity agendas:

1. Recognition agenda: recognizing cultural differences, helping minorities express their distinct identities and practices; and building practices and processes that allow for a plurality of approaches for a plurality of needs (i.e. fairness commission, enhanced settlement and integration programs with increased funding).

2. Integration agenda: bringing minorities into the mainstream, strengthening mutual support and solidarity, and identifying and reinforcing the bonds of a common community (i.e. increased participation of minorities on boards, agencies and commissions, and increased representation in the electoral system).

  • Women & Minorities by Dr. Constance Backhouse, C.M, Professor of Law, University of Ottawa. Backhouse spoke about a case involving Viola Desmond,

an African-Canadian woman who owned and operated a beauty salon in the city of her birth, Halifax, Nova Scotia. She was on a business trip en route to Sydney in 1946, when her automobile broke down, and she was forced to stop in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, for repairs. While waiting, she chose to take in a movie at the town’s local theatre. What happened there set off a chain of events that catapulted her into prison and placed Canadian racism on shameful display.

After telling the story, she goes on to explain part of the lesson:

For those of us who seek to challenge injustice, it sometimes seems that we lose more often than we win. There is a temptation to become cynical, to retreat, to lose hope. Yet ironically, from the seeds of this loss came a flowering of change. The loss galvanized the forces for change within the Black community, where there was a dramatic upsurge in race consciousness. Speaking years later, Nova Scotia’s most prominent Black Baptist minister, Dr. William Pearly Oliver, tried to explain the enormous symbolic significance of the case: “This meant something to our people. Neither before or since has there been such an aggressive effort to obtain rights. The people arose as one and with one voice. Much of the positive action that has since taken place stemmed from this.”

What stands out for me with notes from both of these talks is that they admit that in Canada we are not perfect in striving to build a diverse culture or, as Backhouse so eloquently says, “our pride in multicultural diversity and constitutional equality has uncertain roots.” Yet, I come away after reading both with hope for the future.

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