Taking Diversity to the Next Level in Canada

Compared to the representation of women and visible minorities in the workforce, Indigenous people continue to lag far behind. However, there is no doubt the full inclusion of diverse people and women in society, the workplace, and educational systems remains challenging. Often, diverse people are expected to work harder, achieve more in school and tolerate discrimination throughout society to give the majority more time to understand the real issues around bias based in cultural norms.

The Indigenous are told, in one way or another, to “get over it” when their history is one of cultural suppression, colonialism, and exclusion for hundreds of years.

This is a story that has been told for many years now, making people wonder what it will take to make real progress. Most people agrees that diversity is important to innovation, creating value, driving competitiveness, and achieving economic equality. Yet, a myriad of laws that prohibit discrimination and public and private programs to educate people on the expression of bias and true inclusion has still left large population groups dealing with bias in their personal and work lives.

Recently, Canada experienced protests concerning racism that were similar to those occurring in the United States. In this particular case, the protests addressed the inclusion of Black Canadians in the economy, racial injustice, and lack of equal opportunities. The reality for Visible Minorities is one of daily discrimination in almost everything, from higher expectations placed on them in universities to being treated unequally when it comes to hiring and promotions. For many women, the glass ceiling is stronger than anyone imagined. Even when women are promoted into leadership roles, they still face expectations to “act and think like a man.”

For Aboriginals, the story is most distressing. Though there is a strong and applauded government effort to bring change to the lives of Aboriginals locked in a biased past, the issues are extremely complex and embedded in generations of people excluded from society and cut off from their cultural experiences. So many Aboriginals now live in poverty, fight to retain their culture and struggle to be accepted in general society. They have poorer health compared to other groups, lower levels of education, inadequate housing, lower income levels and higher rates of unemployment. Aboriginals must break a long cycle of disadvantage before they can even hope to succeed, and that is not easy. While women may strive to compete for promotions, Aboriginals strive to just get fair opportunities for skills training and employment.

These are complex issues. Each diverse group of people is in a unique struggle to gain equal status, even if they are at different stages of effort. What will it take to make more progress? For businesses, it begins with understanding that diversity is only a first step because it does not ensure inclusion. They can hire women, Visible Minorities and Aboriginals, and point to statistics intended to prove they do not discriminate. But diversity and inclusion are two different principles.

Government cannot promise inclusion. It can only pass laws requiring or encouraging diversity. Business leaders can promise inclusion but only if they follow up with real action. A business can say it will hire a certain percentage of Aboriginals or visible minorities or women, but what happens after they are hired? Do they get the tools and resources needed for success? Is the workforce trained in unconscious bias? Are people held accountable for expressions of bias?

Importantly, do diverse employees feel comfortable sharing their views and experiences? Holding honest conversations is an important step in taking diversity to the next level because people must share their real world experiences if others are to understand what is happening on a daily basis. If people are afraid to share their perspectives, no one learns. Racism became a national discussion as protests erupted across Canada in support of the protests in the United States over police actions involving Black Americans. However, the protests are more than just “in support” because Black Canadians have stepped up to explain their experiences which are closely aligned with the experiences of Black Americans. They face racism on a daily basis, and it is often under-the-radar kind of discrimination rather than blatant racism. Unconscious bias is much harder to eradicate than overt discrimination.

The protests are really saying, “Listen to me. Hear my life experiences so you understand.” Diversity by itself is mostly a numbers game in which heads are counted. Canada and its employers do not need to count heads. They need to understand the human issues of diverse people and women and address those, or there will be more protests and continued exclusion.

It is also important to recognize that each group of diverse people and women have specific issues. Addressing diversity and inclusion through a generic diversity and inclusion lens is simply not enough. Women have different issues than Visible Minorities who have different issues from Aboriginals. These are difficult times, but it is also a time in which real change is being initiated. That gives us hope that a more inclusive society really is in the making.