Inclusion isn’t just a buzz word — and Canada can prove it

Considering that we have just marked the 35th anniversary of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, now is a good time as any to review exactly why Canadians have something valuable to share — and where there is room for improvement.

By Amira Elghawaby
Toronto Star | April 26, 2017

Many years ago, then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan announced that the world needs more Canada. We heard it again from former American president Barack Obama in 2016, and even more recently from UN special rapporteurs who were visiting the nation’s capital earlier this month.

But when it comes to disseminating good ideas, Canada could and should be more vocal, especially with regards to the protection and promotion of minority rights.

On the one hand, Canada already has its hands full in working to rectify its dismal human rights record towards First Nations and indigenous communities. But recent case law illustrates a forward-thinking approach on other contentious issues that should serve as an example for the rest of the world.

Considering that we have just marked the 35th anniversary of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, now is a good time as any to review exactly why Canadians have something valuable to share — and where there is room for improvement.

For example, during a conference hosted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of which Canada is a member state, our organization led a workshop titled “the Battle of Competing Rights.” Several symbolic Canadian court cases were highlighted during the discussion with policy-makers, government officials, and human rights representatives.

These cases include one in which a young Sikh student successfully challenged rules preventing him from wearing a kirpan to school; another in which a Jewish man was finally permitted to build a religious structure on the balcony of his condo; and a third case which involved a Muslim woman wearing a face veil while appearing in court.

In that last case, known as R. vs. N.S., the Supreme Court of Canada provided a ruling that attempted to balance the rights of an accused to a fair trial and his accuser’s religious freedoms.

A key principal emerging from the ruling was that Canadians should not be expected to park religious beliefs at the courtroom door — or, it was implied, at the door of any institution.

“Everywhere in the world, nations are, it seems, wrestling with this question,” said Supreme Court Justice Beverley McLachlin in a public lecture last year. “How do we deal with … the ‘other,’ with the person who is different in a majoritarian society?” Canada’s future, said the chief justice, “depends on recognizing the need to reject exclusion and favour cultural inclusion.”

Consider the European Commission’s recent ruling that employers can now force their staff to remove their head scarves at work; it’s no small wonder that Canada sounds like “Disneyland” to minority groups there — this is a place where everyone can freely contribute to the country’s success without having to compromise their personal values or beliefs.

The federal government’s announcement last week that public service applications will be scrubbed of information revealing a person’s race and ethnicity is another noteworthy step. The hope is that such a measure will help reduce proven bias that tends to keep certain groups from accessing the same employment opportunities as everyone else, despite Canada’s Employment Equity Act.

“If you don’t have people represented in the institutions, how will they feel included? Decision making cannot be left to mono-ethnic, mono-linguistic, or mono-religious groups,” said Rita Izsák-Ndiaye, UN special rapporteur on minority issues, during her Ottawa visit. “Young people must see themselves in all state structures. If you don’t see a single policeman from your background, for example, how will you trust the institution?”

The lack of diversity throughout all levels of our public institutions, as well as in the private sector, begs the need for more concrete action. Even Silicon Valley — often described as a progressive-haven — is struggling, according to an article in this month’s Atlantic. Companies there are trying all sorts of initiatives, including linking management bonuses to increasing diversity.

The need to address representation gaps are pressing, not only because it makes good business sense, as a new Canadian research study titled “The Diversity Divident” confirms, but that it reinforces the strength of our social fabric. If Canada is to be a global champion of inclusion it must both spotlight its successes and push harder to address systemic weaknesses by exploring all possible fixes and crafting made-in-Canada solutions.