Canada's parliament and its diversity problem

| January 30, 2015
Photo: flickr/Stephen Harper

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Canada is widely renowned for being a 'diverse mosaic'. However, a newly released study by Kai Chan concludes that Canada's current Conservative government and cabinet are not an accurate reflection of our population. 

Not surprised?

Perhaps it's time to contemplate the meaning of "multiculturalism" in all of its controversial glory.

Why are we just questioning this now?

The term 'diversity' can be used quite loosely. However, in Chan's study, it is defined through: geography, language, religion, age, gender, education, ethnicity and occupation.

Chan, currently a policy advisor to the prime minster of the United Arab Emirates, stated that his motivation to study parliamentary representation was fueled by the escalating tension between Canada's Conservative government and its scientific community.

The relationship between policy and science has been outlined by the Canadian Science Writers' Association (CSWA) in a statement saying that, in the past, Canada's federal scientists were encouraged to publicly discuss their research. This changed when the Conservative government introduced media policies to control communication between scientists and the public.

The move to cut funding to scientific services and programs added to the scientific community's concern, resulting in a string of protests at Parliament Hill where demonstrators famously chanted, "What do we want? Evidence-based decision-making!"

When Chan witnessed this growing hostility he wondered how many MPs had an academic background in the sciences.

Delving into his study further, he expanded his research to include several other areas of interest -- like gender and ethnicity -- and also proposed policy recommendations to remedy the disparities in representation in Parliament.

The results, they are surprising (maybe? No not really.)

When specifically studying the proportion of those with higher education by political affiliation, Chan found that Conservative MPs have the lowest incidence of higher education with approximately 33 per cent of Conservatives in the Senate and House having no post-secondary education.

Liberals have the highest levels of education with the incidence of doctoral degrees at 17.5 per cent and law at 33.3 per cent.

Delving deeper, Chan found that women accounted for only 27.6 per cent of the Senate and House. A stark imbalance, considering across Canada women account for 50.4 per cent of the population.

The Conservative Party had the least female representation at 21.8 per cent of its caucus. Liberals had slightly higher representation at 31.3 per cent. And, the NDP had the most females at 36.1 per cent.

Upon viewing the study, Karina Gould, a Liberal candidate running in Burlington, recalled speaking to a grade 10 civics class and asking the class what comes to mind when they think of a politician.

"One brave young woman raised her hand and said, 'Not you, I think of an old man in a stuffy suit.' How can you blame her, when the majority of parliamentarians are older, white men?" stated Gould.

In a statement, Libby Davies, MP for Vancouver East, acknowledged that parliament doesn't reflect the demographics of Canada. "It's been an old boys club (and white at that) from the beginning," said Davies.

Davies went on to point out, "The number of women is also slowly increasing -- but we need to do better. [Proportional representation] has been shown to be a significant factor to increase the participation of women and other underrepresented ‎groups."

Lack of diversity: It's systemic!

Chan also found that people of colour account for 12.3 per cent of MPs, while across Canada they account for 23.3 per cent of the population.

The NDP accounts for the most people of colour in its caucus (14.4 per cent) while the Liberals can account for slightly less (13.4 per cent). People of colour only make up 10.2 per cent of the Conservative caucus.

However, the Conservatives have a relatively strong representation in the South Asian community with seven MPs of South Asian descent. 

Chan suggests a possible factor for this is that traditional South Asian values tend to be more conservative (socially and fiscally). And, that it is possible "that some ridings are considered 'safe' for certain parties, while others may field a candidate with no chance of winning in a riding just so that the party can have a pan-national platform."

Therefore, while there is a bureaucratic component to this phenomenon, Gould notes that perhaps the issue is circular in itself. "Herein lies the problem [of lack of representation]," she went on to specify, "Many women and minorities do not see themselves as people who fit into the political class."

However, it must be noted that beyond lack of representation, the lack of diversity is systemic.

This is shown in multiple studies that span into areas such as employment, positions of power (such as boards of directors) and economics, with results proving that if one is employed, on a board, or wealthy, by virtue of a combination of institutional privileges, that individual is overwhelmingly likely to be white and male (among other things, such as being able-bodied, cisgender, etc).

Chan's study also suggests that densely populated provinces are home to the majority of immigrants and people of colour with 52.4 per cent of immigrants and 46.7 per cent of people of colour living in Ontario alone. Chan suggests that the "under-allocation" of seats to Ontario in the House is a factor in the "missing" people of colour in parliament.

Chan also made an interesting finding with respect to age and representation. The national median age is 40.6 yet the average age of our parliament is 57. In the Senate it's 67.

Gould indicated that our governing party being older and male is likely to lead to skewed policies stating that, "One major policy that is indicative of a lack of a younger, female voice [in the governing party] is that of income-splitting. It's not a policy designed for my generation; it's reflective of those that sit in parliament: upper, middle class men who have a wife that stays at home with the children."

"A younger voice in parliament would probably take a stronger stance on issues that matter to younger Canadians: climate change, the environment, and yes, pensions, among others," she suggests.

Government for all!

For Canada to accurately reflect its population in its parliament, Chan suggests that we follow suit along with Belgium and Australia and implement mandatory voting.

However, some candidates, like Davies disagree.

"I don't see any evidence for that claim. Whereas for PR it's very clear," states Davies. She also notes that she feels it's critical that political parties do their part to encourage, support and seek out candidates to run who are from underrepresented groups.

(You can find a guide to political party nomination processes here.)

To see more diversity socially, economically and in our governance, we must address barriers that bar certain demographics from attaining positions and subsequently creating policies. 

A more diverse parliament would reflect the interests of all who reside in this country -- not just a select few. There are several incentives for us as a population to see an increase in diversification in our governing body.

Let's make it a priority in this year's federal election.


Ashley Splawinski is a political science student at the University of Toronto. Previously, Ashley worked as a producer and host of News Now on CHRY 105.5 FM covering Canadian social, political, and environmental issues. She has also filled several production roles at Rogers Television. Currently, she is a regular contributor to the American publication Young Progressive Voices and is now working on her own documentary concerning unpaid internships and precarious work. You can visit her personal blog and follow her on twitter @asplawinski. 

Photo: flickr/Stephen Harper



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