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Indigenous, immigrant, inclusive: Three perspectives on diversity

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Malinda S. Smith, Vice-President, Equity Issues, Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

Will Ferrell’s comedy, ‘Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy’ tells the story of a woman who is hired in to a newsroom dominated by an old boys club whose behavior ranged from tolerating her presence, to disdaining her professional interventions, to scheming to seduce or depose her. A kind of benign tolerance pertained as long as the ambitious female character stayed in “her place,” doing girly stories on food, clothing and cute pets. Despite being subjected to the kind of garden variety sexism that continues to underwrite the glass ceiling, the female character refused to circumscribe her ambition by being pigeon-holed in to any kind of pink ghetto.

Even as we laugh at the absurdity of the scenes we are reminded of the perennial difficulty faced by organizations trying to treat diverse groups equitably: How do we get those who are comfortably ensconced in the existing social order to recognize the need for change and to be more inclusive? The comedy is productive for thinking about the possibilities of inclusion precisely because it speaks to what makes the absence of diversity and existing inequities so invisible, and yet so ‘normal’, to social majorities who are bemused by, if not resistant to, calls for diversity. This is captured in one memorable scene in the ‘Anchorman’.

Ed Harken: A lot of you have been hearing the affiliates complaining about a lack of diversity on the news team.
Champ Kind: What in the hell’s diversity?
Ron Burgundy: Well, I could be wrong, but I believe diversity is an old, old wooden ship that was used during the Civil War era.
Ed Harken: Ron, I would be surprised if the affiliates were concerned about the lack of an old, old wooden ship, but nice try.

Diversity, we see, can mean different things to different people. As I wrote in “The language of equity and diversity in the academy,” the word ‘diversity’ is ubiquitous, and circulates in all areas of work as in political, social and cultural life. Its meanings are, like the word itself, multiple, contextual and notoriously contingent. Jeanne Martinson illustrates the point in “What is diversity”: “To a stockbroker, it means a balanced portfolio of stocks, bonds and other investments. To a horticulturalist, it means balancing perennials, annuals, shade and sun.” In forestry, it means variety in life forms, ecological roles and in levels including populations, species and ecosystems. In business, supplier diversity signals strategies to include nontraditional groups like minority-owned enterprises in the supply chain. And, in the workplace diversity generally refers to any aspect of human difference, such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, and age. Diversity is also used in the academy to refer to differences in ideas, language, cognitive abilities, and institutional strategies in the area of internationalization.

The many and varied uses of diversity reminds us to heed the emblematic exchange between Humpty Dumpty and Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. Conscious both of his social power and of the contingency of words, Humpty Dumpty told Alice: “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” Since words can mean different things, the question, according to Humpty Dumpty, was this: “which is to be master – that’s all.”  At this historical conjuncture in Canada there are two powerful demographic changes that are spurring us to more seriously reflect on what we mean by diversity and how and why it matters. And, given the multiple and ever expanding use of the word diversity, organizations need to determine which usage is, for them, ‘master.’

Canada’s Social I-Revolutions: Indigenous, immigrant, inclusive

We are in the midst of two demographic revolutions, “social I-Revolutions,” which are ushering in a great social transformation in the very constitution of Canadian society: One is Indigenous and the other is immigrant, and both demand more innovative ways of thinking about diversity and inclusion. As Inuit Tapirit Kanatami leader Mary Simon made clear in, “Embracing the Maple Leaf,” the annual Mel Hurtig Lecture on the Future of Canada, “[T]he beauty of a discussion of this nature is the diversity of the Canadian voices that can contribute to the conversation.”

One I-Revolution is ignited by increasingly rejuvenated and insurgent first peoples, the Indigenous populations heterogeneously constituted by First Nations (53%), Métis (30%), Inuit (4%), and Non-Status Indians (11%). As Cora Voyageur and Brian Callious write in “Shades of Red: Diversity within Canada’s Indigenous Community,” that immigration produced a racially and ethnically diverse population. Although there is a tendency to think of diversity through the lens of immigration, diversity discourse is also applicable to Indigenous peoples. However, what diversity means for Indigenous peoples and for immigrants and what it requires of us may be radically different. Over 1.3 million strong, the Indigenous population is young, urban and constitute the fastest growing demographic group in Canada. They are spatially distributed, with the vast majority living in Ontario and the four western provinces. Most are concentrated in prairie cities like Winnipeg (10%), Saskatoon (9%) and Regina (9%) although some, like the Inuit, are spatially dispersed across 53 communities in the north, with the majority concentrated in Nunavut (50%).

This Indigenous population often finds itself caught between, and caught up in, two cultural worlds, one Indigenous and the other non-Indigenous. This biculturalism, as Inuit leader Mary Simon puts it, means Indigenous peoples are always already navigating complex social spaces, often with insufficient educational access to their Indigenous knowledge, histories, culture and languages. The Assembly of First Nations tells us that Indigenous languages are at the heart of indigeneity as “[I]t passes on our culture, traditions, history, legends, and spirituality from one generation to another.” Only one-quarter of Indigenous people speak an Indigenous language, a drop from one-third in 1996, so there is much need for a new vision of bilingualism – Indigenous and French/English – particularly in the access to education.

The second social I-Revolution already is transforming Canadian society in indelible ways.  Since the 1970s we have been witnessing one of the largest social experiments in world history. Canadian society, in less than two generations, has undergone a fundamental social change from a white majority society to a social majority constituted by diverse non-white minority populations.  In cities like Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, it is expected that non-white Canadians will be the majority by 2017-2020. Never before in human history has a society changed from a primarily white and European majority to a primarily non-white – ‘visible minority’ – and non-European majority.  Yet, this is precisely the moment in which we find ourselves. What we make of it will have profound implications for the future of Canada.

Former Governor General Michaëlle Jean has encouraged Canadians to open more  doors to the country’s racial and ethnic diversity, particularly in leadership and management positions. Both Indigenous peoples and non-white Canadians are underrepresented in leadership positions across all sectors despite the social I-Revolutions and the reconstitution of the social fabric of Canada. “Saying yes to diversity,” Jean argues, means “saying yes to modernity, to opportunity, and to the very future of our country. But saying no carries a huge price. For each time social exclusion closes a door, another door is opened to desolation, frustration, and despair.” Similarly, in a recent interview with the Globe and Mail, Governor General David Johnston encouraged Canadians to be more open to diversity and to hybridity – to see it as a part of the national ‘gift’. “I think it’s attractive that we don’t discourage but we encourage people to keep their language and their heritage, and to teach it to their children and their grandchildren.” He goes on to say, “The great gift of this nation is that we respect diversity, and somehow we’ve been able to make a nation out of diversity and allow people their expression of their identity – as long as they don’t hurt somebody else.”

Three perspectives on diversity and inclusion

In times of economic crisis, such as we face, it is all too common to hear talk which suggests diversity is a luxury, which we cannot afford, something from which we should divest or, at best, something we should defer to better times. But such magical thinking cannot disappear what is an inalterable fact of Canadian social reality. The question is not whether we can afford or defer diversity.  Diversity is our current reality. Rather, as Humpty Dumpty suggests, the questions we are faced with are really about what diversity means both to and for us.

There are many perspectives on why and how we should care about diversity in a democratic society and a knowledge-based economy. Each of these social I-Revolutions requires a radical rethinking of how we imagine diversity – and particularly equity among and between Canada’s diverse people. While there are many perspectives on diversity, three overlapping and intersecting perspectives are most common: first, there is the ethical or human rights approach to diversity; second, there are various voluntary and instrumental perspectives on diversity including the business case; and, third and finally, there is the ontological or complexity perspective on diversity.

One of the most enduring defenses of diversity is variously referred to as the antidiscrimination or ethical case. Arising out of human rights and civil rights movements, this perspective states simply that diversity is the right thing to do in order to ameliorate social inequities and to fairly reflect the existing social reality.  What distinguishes this perspective is its attentiveness to ameliorating discrimination arising from prejudice and bigotry that impact specific demographic groups as well as  the individual, cultural and institutional barriers that unfairly disadvantage them in the workplace, such as in hiring, retention, promotion and income.  It is also distinguished by its normative or human rights logic, a commitment to antidiscrimination and due process, and its comportment with the efforts to entrench equality rights through various legal instruments that increase diversity.

There are also various instrumental logics for advancing equity and diversity. Proponents of the business case for diversity suggest diversity is a good thing, a resource, one which helps companies and organisations remain competitive by reflecting and staying connected to their customers.  In “Why diversity – why now?” the authors argue that transformational and forward-thinking leaders recognize that diversity and inclusion must be integral to everyday practices rather than conceived as ad hoc or stand-alone programs. Instead, diversity must be understood as part of the business imperative, something that will impact the bottom-line, improve productivity, market share and increase staff and client loyalty.

The final and most compelling argument for diversity is what I’ve called the ontological or complexity case. Diversity is a fact of life. We need to understand the ways in which these Indigenous and immigrant I-Revolutions have reconfigured the diversity of Canada and how this diversity shapes ideas and innovation, novel approaches to problem-solving and creative ways of reinventing our collective futures. As Scott E. Page writes we need to better understand the relationship between diversity and complexity and those instances in which “diversity trumps ability…. for that innovation to happen depends as much on collective difference as on aggregate ability. If people think alike no matter how smart they are [then] they most likely will get stuck at the same locally optimal solutions.”

Canada’s diversity presents an inescapable opportunity; let’s get on with realizing it.

Malinda S. Smith is an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Alberta, and the Vice-President, Equity Issues at the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

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Equity Matters