On March 16, 2016, Nathaniel represented Canada in a panel discussion at the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s Global Conference of Young Parliamentarians in Lusaka, Zambia. The topic of the panel was “enhancing equality and diversity in representation and participation.” These are his remarks:
Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, is fond of a powerful phrase that speaks to our diversity:
“We are strong, not in spite of our differences, but because of them.”
Diversity as a source of strength, to be promoted and celebrated. After all, the alternative is uniformity, and to quote my Prime Minister’s father:
“A society which emphasizes uniformity is one which creates intolerance and hate.”
Looking around the world today, we certainly don’t need more intolerance.
Living together, working together, succeeding together; fundamentally, it depends upon mutual respect for our differences. It depends upon the recognition that unity and diversity go hand in hand. It’s the idea at the very heart of our Canadian confederation.
Having learned to respect one another, we have created the conditions for a progressive and productive society.
20% of Canadians were born outside of our country, including more than half of those in the City of Toronto, where I am from. It’s estimated that there are 242 ethnic groups represented in our country, yet that diversity has not led to division.
Again, to quote my Prime Minister:
“We have proven that a country – an astonishingly successful country – can be built on and be defined by shared values. Not religion, language, or ethnicity. But shared values.”
And again, to quote his father:
“A country is something that is built every day out of certain basic shared values.”
Equality, liberty, dignity, multiculturalism, tolerance, respect – we have built institutions around us to reinforce these ideas and values.
For example, our Charter codifies equality rights, language rights, Aboriginal rights, freedom of religion (including the freedom from religion), and includes a clause requiring that it be interpreted “in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.”
Our Supreme Court has held that the unwritten principles of the Canadian Constitution include democracy as well as the protection of minorities – the principle that guides the other principles.
Looking beyond the Constitution, there are any number of statutes that seek to promote and protect equality and diversity, from the anti-discrimination goals of the Canadian Human Rights Act, to the pay equity goals of the Employment Equity Act.
In politics, Canada is committed to a fair and accessible electoral process, and we continue to work to encourage increased participation among historically disenfranchised groups.
Elections Canada – the institution tasked with promoting fairness in elections – published the 2015 voter identification guide in 31 languages. For persons with disabilities, Elections Canada provides accessible communications, accessible voting facilities, and alternatives to voting in person. Mobile and accessible polling stations are also provided for seniors.
Our Cabinet Ministers have historically been selected based upon regional and linguistic diversity. But our Prime Minister has continued the push for equality, appointing a gender-balanced Cabinet for the first time in Canadian history.
Our new independent Senate appointment criteria explicitly states that “nominees will be considered with a view to achieving gender balance in the Senate. Priority consideration will be given to nominees who represent Indigenous peoples and linguistic, minority, and ethnic communities.”
I’m proud to tell you that 47 of our 338 MPs are visible minorities – that’s 14% in the House of Commons vs. 15% of our population. And that 10 of our MPs are Aboriginal, also roughly on par with Canadian society.
Of course, we still have much work to do.
While there was a significant increase in voter turnout in the 2015 election, there remains a much lower participation rate among historically disadvantaged groups, including a double digit lower turnout among our Aboriginal population.
While Elections Canada has launched initiatives, from education programs in Aboriginal languages, to ensuring that polling divisions take place on reserves, significant work must be done to address poverty, education funding gaps, and reconciliation more broadly before greater political participation is likely to occur.
And while we have achieved gender parity among Cabinet appointments, our Parliament is only 26.2% women. We rank only 60th in the world, and women remain under represented as electoral candidates, between 20% and 43%, depending upon the political party.
Some solutions are underway. Our women’s caucus (which includes men) is currently focused on making our Parliament more family friendly – important for those of us who now live in that world, but even more important for women who continue to face the competing pressures of career vs. family.
Political parties must also ensure that more women stand for election in the first place. In fact, we need more women in positions of power in all sectors, both public and private.
It is also up to us, as leaders, to ensure that what was once exceptional becomes ordinary.
On International Women’s Day, our government announced an initiative to put women on a bank note, and I spent a good deal of time reading about the exceptional women who broke barriers in Canadian history.
In 1921, Agnes MacPhail became our first female Member of Parliament. She served for 20 years between federal and provincial legislatures, fought for social justice, and for equal rights for men and women, authoring Ontario’s first equal-pay legislation in 1951. She was exceptional.
In 1982, Bertha Wilson became our first female Supreme Court Justice. She had entered law at a time when women were less than 5% of the legal profession. At one point during law school, her dean told her “to just go home and take up crocheting,” yet that didn’t stop her from practising law at a top firm for 17 years, and working as a prolific justice for 26 more. She was exceptional.
A week before coming here, I sat down with a young women, currently in high school, who wants to run for office one day to serve her community. I answered her questions and encouraged her to pursue her passion for public service. It all seemed so very ordinary.
Exactly as it should be.
Let us all commit to making diversity and equality in our societies so very ordinary.