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Federal Election 2011: Equity, diversity and social justice in the English leaders' debate

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Malinda S. Smith, Vice-President, Equity Issues

As a political scientist, I think election debates are an important opportunity for citizens to assess the various party positions on the issues that matter to Canadians. As Vice-President, Equity Issues for the Federation, I thought it would be a useful exercise to identify some of the equity, diversity and social justice themes that emerged in the elections debates. Although the debate found me abroad, speaking at a Canadian Studies Symposium in Cuba, I had television access to the debates both in English (via CTV global) and French (via Radio Canada), as well as to live blogging via the Globe and Mail’s web site.

The two nationally televised federal election debates were held on Tuesday, April 12 and Wednesday, April 13. The leaders of four of Canada’s national parties – Conservative leader and prime minister Stephen Harper, Liberal leader and the official leader of the opposition Michael Ignatieff, New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton, and Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe took part in both debates. Green Party leader Elizabeth May was not approved for participation in the debates.

At least three broad themes central to equity, diversity and social justice in Canada were woven through the first debate.

First, a cross-cutting theme related to women’s issues, nationally and globally. The topics included women and leadership, and the representation of women in Parliament; violence against women, and the tragedy of the Montreal massacre particularly in the context of gun control and the gun registry; maternal and child health in Canada’s G8 commitments; and, briefly, the issue of abortion and women’s right to reproductive freedom.

Another important equity theme that emerged in the debates related to Canada’s first peoples and issues of Indigenous health and wellbeing. 

Specifically, Aboriginal education was discussed including the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Shawn Atleo’s call to place greater emphasis on education. Aboriginal education was identified as at the heart of addressing the complex relationship between community health, incarceration, employment and mobility, and poverty reduction in Canada’s First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities.

Third, a wide range of issues were discussed in the context of Canada’s intensifying demographic changes and particularly the deepening ethnic and cultural diversity in cities. The issues covered in the debate included immigration and the various classes of immigrants (e.g. family class and family reunification, temporary workers, economic class, and refugees); the need for increased support for newcomer settlement, particularly support for English and French-language acquisition to ensure successful integration; the ongoing challenges related to foreign credential recognition, the need for education and employment upgrading, and employment training and mentoring opportunities for immigrant professionals. As well, the recognition of ethnic and cultural diversity, the benefits of multiculturalism in Canada, and the suggestion by the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on reasonable accommodation that interculturalism rather than multiculturalism better reflected Quebec realities were discussed.

The last time leaders of all federal parties held an entire debate on women’s issues was 1984. That year marked another historic moment, the release of the Royal Commission Report on Equality in Employment (the Abella Report), which gave rise to the distinctively Canadian concept, policy and practice of employment equity. Although the 2011 election campaign includes no specific debate on gender equity, it was a cross-cutting theme across the six questions addressed in the 2011 federal debate.

So what, specifically, was said by the party leaders? All party leaders discussed various women’s issues as issues of equity and fairness, although emphasis was placed on different priorities. NDP leader Mr Layton spoke to his party’s nomination of women candidates and how Canada needed more women in politics and in leadership positions. Mr Harper spoke to the commitments to child and maternal health made by his government at the G8 Summit. Mr Ignatieff spoke to the issue of violence against women, recalling the tragedy of the Ėcole Polytechnique massacre (Montreal massacre, 6 December, 1989) and why his party supported gun control and the gun registry. Mr Duceppe stressed his party’s support for a woman’s right to abortion and to reproductive freedoms, as well as the importance of the gun registry.

Aboriginal issues and the importance of access to higher education is a priority of all of Canada’s national Aboriginal leaders, including AFN Chief Shawn Atleo, the national Inuit leader and President of the Inuit Tapirit Kanatami Mary Simon, and the leader of the national Métis Council President Clément Chartier. During the debate Mr Layton mentioned his party’s support for heeding the call of Aboriginal leaders to increase funding for Aboriginal education as this was vital to addressing long-term health and employment in First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities across Canada.

Finally, all the party leaders responded to a question about multiculturalism.  Mr Harper, Mr Ignatieff and Mr Layton underlined their unequivocal support for federal multiculturalism, although they stressed different dimensions. Mr. Duceppe, in contrast, argued that the federal multicultural model was inappropriate for Quebec, which has implemented an intercultural approach to immigrant settlement and integration.

Mr Duceppe noted that the French minority in Canada represented only two percent of the population of North America. He stressed the importance of immigrants learning the French language and not living in ‘ethnic enclaves’ and the Bouchard-Taylor Commission’s suggestion that in Quebec interculturalism was more relevant than multiculturalism. He also raised concerns about the approach to recent Sri Lankan refugees and how this seemed like the ‘criminalisation of refugees,’ today, compared with the treatment of Vietnamese refugees that came as ‘boat people’ to Quebec some years back. Mr Harper expressed his party’s support for multiculturalism, rejected the language of ‘ethnic enclaves;’ emphasised the request of provinces like Manitoba for more temporary workers and economic immigrants and his government’s commitment to addressing the immigration application backlog.

In his response to multiculturalism question, Mr Ignatieff stressed that Canadians valued diverse cultures but did not want to be identified as ‘ethnic’ or ‘very ethnic,’ rather they all want to be identified as ‘Canadians;’ the importance of English and French-language acquisition for newcomer integration and how recent cuts to newcomer settlement groups in Ontario might undermine successful social inclusion and employment initiatives. He also noted that family-class immigrants were as important as economic immigrants especially given the social role of the extended family. Recalling that his father was an immigrant from Russia, Ignatieff wondered aloud whether his grandparents could emigrate today, given the backlog of family-class applications.

Mr Layton noted that ten-year waits for family-class immigrants was too long, and that he was proud his wife Olivia Chow’s mother could emigrate to Canada from Hong Kong and has lived with them for the past 20 years in an extended family relationship. He also raised the issue of foreign credential recognition, the need for immigrant workers to have access to mentoring programs, and expressed concerns about the recent cuts to immigrant groups, especially in Ontario, that had been involved in newcomer settlement.

Although the words ‘social justice,’ social wellbeing and social inclusion were not engaged specifically, the debate nodded to – indeed, could not circumvent – their importance, including discussions of poverty and inequality, urban-rural divide in access to physicians and nurses,  education and health disparities among Aboriginal people, and unemployment and income disparities.

On the international scene, the various parties discussed the importance of Canada in the world and the ongoing need for Canadian internationalism, whether in the G8, at the United Nations or in other multilateral forum. There was discussion of Canada’s internationalism and humanitarianism under leaders like Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson (Duceppe) and record of welcoming of refugees; the benefits of maternal and child health in the G8 plan and aid to Africa (Harper); the need to pass the Canadian bill to provide affordable drugs to treat HIV/AIDs in Africa and elsewhere (Layton); and the importance of Canada’s leadership role in the United Nations Security Council, and the need to  project Canadian values abroad including by supporting student engagement in service learning in countries like Kenya (Ignatieff). While these issues often were addressed too briefly, when taken together they reflect Canada’s ongoing commitment to engendering a just society and even world order, a  commitment to ameliorating social exclusion, and the overriding principle of equity and fairness for all who live within its borders and beyond.

Malinda S. Smith is an associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta and the Federation’s vice-president, Equity Issues.

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