Cultural Diversity in Canada: The Social Construction of Racial Difference

6. Racial Inequality and the Politics of Difference

Demographic changes and the politics of multiculturalism were not the only factors which contributed to the making of racial differences in Canadian society. In reality, racial distinctions are also reproduced by unequal life chances and by normative values regarding people of colour.

Substantial evidence is now available to indicate that the Canadian labour market provides lower economic returns to visible minorities (Li, 1988, 1992b, 1997). Women of colour, in particular, suffer severe market disadvantage. For example, data from the 1986 Census indicate that visible minority women earned about 49 percent of what white men made in the labour market, while visible minority men earned about 80 percent (Li, 1992b: 497). Data from the 1991 Census further show that visible minorities earned substantially less than white Canadians even after differences in human capital and other factors have been taken into account (Li, 1997, 1998b; Pendakur & Pendakur, 1996).

The most recent census data for 1996 continue to reflect the earning disadvantage of those of visible minority origin (Table 5). For example, those of West Asian origin and those of Latin America origin earned $6,933 and $8,452 below the national mean respectively (Table 5). Blacks earned $5,310 below the national average earning and those of Vietnamese origin earned $4,968 below that level. No doubt, some of the differences in earnings can be attributed to variations in human capital, labour market experiences, and demographic characteristics. However, when these other differences are taken into account, Table 5 (last column) still shows lower net earnings associated with visible minority origins. The Chinese and the West Asians, for example, earned $3,188 and $5,937 less than the average respectively. In fact, all visible minorities had substantial net earning levels below the mean. In contrast, most of the non-visible minority groups had earnings either above the mean or slightly below the mean; the noted exceptions were those of Greek origin (-$2,298) and those of Hungarian origin (-$1,115). These data suggest that there is a differential market value attached to people of different racial origin in the Canadian labour market.

Although all visible minorities earned less than the national average after inter-group differences were taken into accounted, some earned more than before while others earned less. For example, the Chinese earned even less, and those of Filipino, Latin American, or Black origin earned substantially more after other variations are controlled. One reason has to do with the differences in educational levels of various groups. For some groups such as the Chinese, they earned more before controlling for other variations because they had relatively high educational level. But when their educational level is assumed to be the same as the national average, they suffer a larger income disadvantage. Conversely, a group such as the Blacks earned less than the national average in part because of their relatively low education level. When their educational level is assumed to be the same as others, their income improves, but not to the extent that it matches the national average. The data are unequivocal in showing that non-white origin creates a penalty for all visible minorities in the labour market. In contrast, white Canadians tended to have an income level above the national average, except for those from some South European and some East European origins. Even in those European-origin groups whose income fell below the average, the deviations were much less than that of non-white Canadians. Since income differentials are maintained after adjusting for other differences, it can be said that non-white Canadians, both aboriginal people and visible minorities, are penalized in terms of receiving a lower income that is attributed to their origin. By comparison, most white Canadians enjoy an income premium due to their origin.

Table 5: Gross and Net Labour Market Earnings of Racial and Ethnic Groups, Canada, 1996

Many other studies have also shown that life chances for various racial and ethnic groups are not the same, and that visible minorities such as Asians and blacks have lower earning returns in the Canadian labour market than white Canadians (Retiz & Breton, 1994; Satzewich & Li, 1987; Abella, 1984). Several factors have been identified as creating barriers of employment and social mobility for non-white Canadians, especially those who are immigrants. These factors include the difficulty faced by many non-white immigrants in having their credentials fully recognized in Canada (McDade, 1988; Zong & Basran, 1998), and employment discrimination against racial minorities with identifiable linguistic characteristics and racial features (Henry & Ginsberg, 1985; Henry, 1989; Scassa, 1994). These studies offer some explanations as to how those of non-white origins are associated with a lower market value; in essence, it has much to do with racial minorities being disadvantaged in the labour market as a result of racial discrimination, or differential treatment based on superficial differences.

In addition to unequal life chances, racial differences are also reproduced as normative values in Canadian society. Canada has a long history of maintaining discriminatory policies and practices towards Canadians deemed to be racially different based on skin colour and other superficial features. Over time, differential treatments and unfavourable policies targeted towards racial minorities become in themselves identifiable characteristics of these groups. In this way, superficial characteristics of racial minorities are inseparable from unfavourable social features attributed to them.

There is substantial evidence to indicate that to this day, Canadian society continues to attribute unequal social value to people of different origins. Many studies have shown that Canadians regard non-white minorities as socially less desirable and less favourable than people of European origin (Angus Reid Group, 1991; Kalin and Berry, 1996), and that the notion of “race” remains meaningful to many people as a means to make sense of their everyday experiences (Li, 1994).

The politics of difference were well articulated in the public discourse in the early 1990s, when the debate over the constitutional and sovereignty claims of Quebec divided Canada and prompted a retrenchment of the multiculturalism policy, one that was seen by some as divisive. Several opinion polls indicate that there has been a persistent degree of unwillingness on the part of some Canadians to accept those of “non-White” origins as worthy Canadians. For example, a 1991 national attitudinal survey commissioned by Multiculturalism and Citizenship Canada found that respondents displayed different degrees of “comfort” towards individuals of various ethnic backgrounds; ethnic groups of European origin enjoyed higher social rankings than those of non-White origin, mostly Asians and Blacks (Angus Reid Group, 1991; Kalin & Berry, 1996). The same survey also indicated that Canadians showed contradictory tendencies with respect to the principle of equality and support of minority rights. For example, 85 percent of the respondents said that they support a multiculturalism policy which promotes equality among all Canadians, regardless of racial or ethnic origin (Angus Reid Group, 1991: 24). At the same time, 28 percent of the people being surveyed said “people who come to Canada should change to be more like us” (Angus Reid Group, 1991: 35). Another public opinion poll conducted in 1993 also indicated the unpopularity of the multiculturalism policy at the time: as many as 72 percent of the respondents believed “that the long standing image Canada as a nation of communities, each ethnic and racial group preserving its own identity with the help of government policy, must give way to the U.S. style of cultural absorption” (Globe and Mail 1993: A1, A2). Another survey, conducted by Ekos Research Associates in 1994, found that most respondents agreed that there are too many immigrants, especially from visible minority groups, and that 60 percent of respondents agreed that “too many immigrants feel no obligation to adapt to Canadians values and way of life” (Globe and Mail, 1994). These results indicate that a segment of the Canadian public persistently sees visible minorities as being the major problem of immigration, and that their alleged unwillingness to adapt to Canadian values and lifestyle is undermining Canada’s “social cohesion”.

Despite the absence of evidence that non-white immigrants are weakening the unity and cohesion of Canada, it is often suggested that too much racial and cultural diversity will lead to fragmentation of Canadian society. An example of such a position widely circulated in immigration consultation circle is as follows: “Many people … are also worried that their country is becoming fragmented, that it is becoming a loose collection of parts each pursuing its own agenda, rather than a cohesive entity striving for collective good of Canada. Many Canadians are concerned that immigration and citizenship policies attend too much to the concerns of special interest groups, rather than to those of average Canadians.” (Canada, Citizenship and Immigration, 1994a: 10). Often time, concerns over racial differences are couched as the problem of high cost and limited capacity to integrate immigrants of diverse cultural backgrounds[6] . The corollary of this argument is that unless the cost and capacity of absorbing “differences” in Canadian society are increased, it would create social stress and tension in trying to incorporate people of diverse cultural origins, and that it is justifiable and necessary to control the rate of immigration that contributes to racial and cultural diversity, which in turn, creates social disruption. Over time, a vicious circle emerges in the public discourse of racial differences: racial diversity and the multiculturalism policy are seen as divisive, and public opinions about racial diversity become evidence of how cultural differences result in clashes in values and lifestyles; in turn, public policies have to take cognizance of the need to manage diversity to prevent further fragmentation and disharmony. In this way, managing diversity becomes synonymous with promoting social cohesion.

The salience of these political debates suggests that despite the multiculturalism policy and the legal entrenchment of human rights in the post-war decades, Canadian society continues to consider it meaningful to use “race” as a basis to evaluate the social standing, competence and desirability of others. As well, they show that non-white racial minorities in Canada are often regarded as less desirable as compared to people of European origin.

It should be recognized that the social value and market value attached to racial origin are related (Li, 1998b). It can be seen that economic disadvantages associated with certain racial origins reinforce their low social standing since people so marked carry a lower market worth. In the long run, economic disparities according to racial origins help to maintain the social reality of race by giving a discounted market value to certain racial groups. In turn, the low social value given to certain racial origins creates obstacles which further limit the market outcomes for people being racialized.


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