News & Events

January 13, 2016

Take pride that Parliament reflects the face of Canada

The following commentary by Michael Adams and Andrew Griffith was published in the January 13, 2016 edition of The Globe and Mail >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

“Because it’s 2015,” was Prime Minister Trudeau’s memorable response to a reporter’s question about why he had made it a priority to have gender parity in his cabinet. The composition of the 42nd parliament suggests that Canadians agree with their new PM that as one of the most diverse countries on earth approaches its 150th birthday, the identities of its political representatives should match the identities of its population.

A look at the composition of this country’s 42nd parliament is illuminating.

As of the 2011 National Household Survey, about one in five Canadians (20.6%) was born outside this country. In the last parliament, 13 percent of the legislature (42 MPs) was foreign-born. In the current parliament, In the current parliament there are 45 foreign-born MPs in the enlarged 338 seat House of Commons, the same proportion as before..

Another more significant measure of the successful integration of our diverse population into our polity is the representation of visible minorities in parliament. (Aboriginal peoples, four percent of our population, are not classified as visible minorities by Statistics Canada.) Notably, in contrast to the foreign-born, the number and percentage of visible minority MPs rose dramatically: to 47 MPs or 14 percent of the House. This proportion is almost the same as the proportion of Canadian citizens who are visible minorities (15%). It is also true that 14 percent of all candidates in the recent election were visible minorities, suggesting that these would-be MPs were nominated by parties at a rate commensurate with their presence in the population, and that they met electoral success at a rate proportional to their participation (that is, were not disproportionately elected or defeated). And for the record, this last election also saw an unprecedented ten Aboriginal Canadians elected to parliament, almost at parity with their proportion of the population.

Canada’s foreign-born MPs came from everywhere: 16 from Asia, eight from Europe, seven from the Mid-East, five from the Americas, and five from Africa. In relation to their share of the population, South Asian, West Asian and Arab Canadians are over-represented, while Chinese, Black, Latin American and Southeast Asian Canadians are under-represented.

Some people assume that if members of minority groups are elected, they are elected in enclaves where voters are mainly from their own group. While in-group affinity (in all groups) likely plays a role in voters’ assessments of candidates, election results suggest most visible minority MPs were elected in ridings where their own groups did not constitute a majority. Indeed, nine of the 47 visible minority MPs were elected in ridings where the voting population was less than 20% visible minority.

Canada’s parliament is notably more aligned with its population than are the legislatures of other countries with high immigration rates. In the U.S., 12 percent of the population is foreign-born but just three percent of legislators in Washington are. In Australia, where 27.7 percent of the population is foreign-born, just 9 percent of MPs are.

Many Canadians were dismayed to see a federal political party peddle suspicion of a religious minority group during the last federal campaign (as the Conservatives were seen to be doing with their “Barbaric Cultural Practices Hotline” and their well publicized efforts to prevent a woman from wearing a niqab while she took the oath of citizenship). Although Canada is not free of injustice or prejudice, this country has been remarkable in the extent to which xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiment have been absent from mainstream political discourse; the recent election was a striking departure.

Because of this traditional, general rejection of explicit xenophobia across all parties in recent decades—and because immigrants, like other Canadians, are diverse in their political views—no party has had a monopoly on immigrants and none can take for granted the support of any ethnocultural or religious minority group. While the Liberals made more of an effort to recruit visible minority candidates, foreign-born and visible minority candidates and MPs are present in all major parties, although their numbers have swung dramatically in the recent election (along with the fortunes of the parties more broadly). The Conservatives went from 15 visible minority MPs to only six. The Liberals jumped from two to 39. The NDP sank to two from 12. The Green Party remains 100 percent foreign-born: their only MP and leader Elizabeth May, like Bruce Springsteen, was born in the USA.

What is new about the 42nd parliament, aside from altered partisan composition and a gender-balanced cabinet? In fact, not too much. The 41st parliament was quite diverse to begin with. The Trudeau government is doing more to make diversity—and an aspirational vision of an inclusive Canada—central to its agenda, and there is no doubt that some of the energy that came out against the Harper government during the campaign was a renunciation of tactics that pitted Canadians against each other along ethnic and religious lines.

But when it comes to the composition of parliament itself, the 42nd parliament is not so much a watershed as it is one more significant yet incremental step in a long, deep movement toward a national legislature that represents the identities, experiences, and perspectives of all Canadians.

Andrew Griffith is a former director-general of citizenship and multiculturalism.

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