‘Disappointing’ cabinet picks show Trudeau still needs to address diversity ‘blind spot’, say advocates

It is always interesting to listen to the advocates. In 2015, if I recall correctly, the complaint was over representation of South Asians (four) and no Black Canadians. In 2019, the complaint is only one Black Canadian without really acknowledging the lack of representation of other groups (e.g., Filipino Canadians, Arab Canadians).

By my count, the current cabinet has four South Asians, one Chinese, one Black, one West Asian and one Latin American (formally speaking, Argentine origins are not classified as visible minorities but nevertheless are perceived as such by the Latin American ethnic media).

The above chart provides a breakdown of MPs by visible minority groups and party (no visible minority Bloc or Green MPs). South Asians form over half of Liberal visible minority MPs.

However, Caesar-Chavannes does acknowledge the geographic, gender and other constraints that are intrinsic in cabinet making.

Aziz, on the other hand, ignores the increased diversity among judges and GiC appointments which is more reflective of the government’s record.

And while I would. be the last to maintain that Cabinet representation is unimportant, I think it is more important to focus on the government’s accomplishments and commitments where the government has a decent record to build upon (e.g., appointments, the increased funding for multiculturalism and anti-black racism and associated initiatives).

Lastly, in terms of benchmarks, the percentage of visible minorities who are also citizens, and thus able to vote and run for office, is 17.2 percent, arguably a better benchmark to use than the total number of visible minorities (:

The latest cabinet picks were disappointing for some advocates of better representation for racialized Canadians in positions of power, including former Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes who offered a plea to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to demonstrate he is correcting an admitted blind spot.

She said that didn’t happen during the Nov. 20 cabinet shuffle, which saw one Black minister named among the seven visible-minority cabinet members, and one Indigenous MP receive a post after a seven-month gap since former justice minister-turned Independent MP Jody Wilson-Raybould (Vancouver Granville, B.C.) left cabinet in February last year.

Though Ms. Caesar-Chavannes said she understands it’s sometimes “a numbers game” with few elected to pick from—in this case four Black MPs in the Liberal caucus—she said Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) missed an opportunity and has yet to demonstrate through his actions that he’s addressing the damage caused in the wake of the racist images of him that emerged during the campaign.

Perhaps he thought naming a second Black MP to cabinet would have been “too obvious” or “fake,” but it would have “symbolized an understanding of the tremendous barriers that still exist within these communities,” she said, invoking Mr. Trudeau’s own assessment of his past decisions to don blackface and brownface, including as a 29-year-old teacher.

Former Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes says the prime minister has yet to demonstrate he’s learned from his past, but she’s still hopeful the government will address issues that affect racialized communities and address representation in positions of power. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

“Please pay attention to the blind spot that you said was created by your privilege and do something to correct it,” she said.

During his second attempt addressing the scandal on Sept. 19, Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) acknowledged “a massive blind spot” he said was born from his upbringing in “a place of privilege.”

Cabinet is only one area to address that, she said, and she still has hope the government will “do things differently.” That includes appointing more persons of colour to senior positions in the public service, and considering who is staffed in the inner circle. It’s “nonsense,” for example, that the government had only one Black chief of staff, Marjorie Michel, who was named in 2019.

Former Liberal foreign policy adviser Omer Aziz, who wasn’t available for a phone interview, offered a blunt assessment of the cabinet over email.

“White men at Finance, Foreign Affairs, and Justice. White men in the inner circle. An overwhelmingly white political staffer class. But there’s not even a pretence of genuine diversity anymore, which I suppose is a positive development since we can all stop pretending,” he wrote, noting it’s “sobering” to think that the Conservatives “would be even worse, but I still believe we can do a lot better.”

Mr. Aziz has been critical of the Liberal government since leaving in January 2018, saying he constantly felt “sidelined” in discussions during his time, and that minority staff voices in government, in general, were not being empowered and listened to.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama’s late-campaign endorsement “was determinative to Trudeau’s victory,” added Mr. Aziz, but the former president also had a Black attorney general, national security adviser, and homeland security secretary. “Perhaps [Mr.] Trudeau could learn something from the former president about representation and power.”

While this cabinet wasn’t a repeat of 2015, when no Black MPs were named, Black Vote Canada’s Velma Morgan said she was “extremely disappointed” that Families, Children, and Social Development Minister Ahmed Hussen (York South–Weston, Ont.) remains the only Black minister.

The United Nations Decade for People of African Descent (UNDPAD) Push Coalition, which advocates for Black people living in Canada and was created to push for budget commitments to that effect, has said the cabinet choices leaves it questioning the Liberal government’s commitment to improving the lives of Black Canadians.

“Our community is not monolithic. We can’t have just one person speaking on behalf of us,” said Ms. Morgan, echoing the call for better representation to occur in the federal service and political staffer class.

Proportionality is not enough to address inclusion: LeMay 

In 2015, Mr. Trudeau declared the creation of “a cabinet that looks like Canada,” but several who spoke with The Hill Times said that’s still not the case. The seven visible-minority MPs represent 19.4 per cent of the cabinet, compared with 22.3 per cent of the Canadian population that identifies that way. He also named one Indigenous person, or 2.7 per cent of cabinet. The Indigenous population of Canada is closer to five per cent. Over Mr. Trudeau’s first four years in office, he appointed seven racialized and two Indigenous MPs to his cabinet. Under former prime minister Stephen Harper’s nearly 10 years, he appointed five visible minority and three Indigenous cabinet ministers.

Of the 61 visible minority and Indigenous MPs elected on Oct. 21, 44 are in the Liberal caucus and the only demographic (of those elected in the Liberal caucus) not represented in cabinet are MPs of Arabic descent.

The cabinet includes four women of colour: Minister of Small Business, Export Promotion, and International Trade Mary Ng (Markham–Thornhill, Ont.), Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth Bardish Chagger (Waterloo, Ont.), Minister of Public Services and Procurement Anita Anand (Oakville, Ont.), who became Canada’s first Hindu minister, and Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Rural Economic Development Maryam Monsef (Peterborough–Kawartha. Ont.), who became Canada’s first Muslim minister in 2015. Cabinet veterans Families Minister Ahmed Hussen  (York South–Weston, Ont.), Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan (Vancouver South, B.C.), and Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains (Mississauga–Malton, Ont.) were also reappointed.

All but Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal (Saint Boniface-Saint Vital, Man.)—who is Métis and the lone Indigenous person in cabinet—and Mr. Sajjan are from Ontario in a cabinet that is skewed toward Canada’s biggest provinces, with 11 in Quebec, and 17 in Ontario.

“Our politics suffers from the lack of proportional representation and this cabinet is an example of that,” said Anita Singh, a Canadian political analyst and expert in Indian diaspora politics, noting the one Asian, one Black, and one Indigenous minister, though all three communities “are much larger and much more diverse than the cabinet shows.”

From an inclusion standpoint, one is never enough, said Rose LeMay, CEO of the Indigenous Reconciliation Group, who also writes a column for The Hill Times.

“Too often, in an inclusion debate, when there’s only one person of colour or a different culture, that person unfortunately becomes just becomes a token,” she said. “We will need more than just proportional around the table. We need our voice to be heard strongly and that will not occur even if we have a similar number around the table—we actually would need more to make the change that we need to see.”

That only one of the six Liberal Indigenous MPs were named to cabinet is concerning, but not surprising, she said, especially after a campaign that “hardly touched on reconciliation.”

Given Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s experience and journey trying to “maintain her credibility,” both with First Nations across Canada and in cabinet, Ms. LeMay suggested a role representing the Crown carries “a significant risk” for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit MPs.

“I wonder how difficult that would be for an Indigenous [person] in cabinet, how to maintain, with integrity, both of those roles,” she said.

‘Top-tier’ posts not given to people of colour

The most frustrating part of this cabinet for Ms. Singh is the posts persons of colour take on, she said, echoing Mr. Aziz’s issues.

All but one of the “top-tier” posts—finance, foreign affairs, trade, environment, justice, defence—remain with a white minister. Some contended Mr. Sajjan at defence, though a big file, isn’t as high-profile.

Similarly, there are gaps in portfolios that control the purse strings and involve “high-profile policy making,” like health, transport, and infrastructure, she said.

“We also see that Trudeau continues the tradition of putting inexperienced visible minority MPs in some of the toughest files and under-appreciated files,” she said pointing to rookie Ms. Anand, where she will oversee the Phoenix pay debacle and fighter jets procurement file, in concert with National Defence. Ms. Monsef, initially in charge of democratic reform in the last Parliament, was an example of that in Mr. Trudeau’s first cabinet, she said.

Others, like Ms. Morgan, don’t see it that way, saying a seat at the table is what’s most important.

Though some have viewed Mr. Hussen’s move from Immigration to Families as a demotion (an assessment he disagreed with at the swearing-in), Ms. Caesar-Chavannes pushed back and said she sees it as a high-impact post that directly affects racialized communities.

Angela Wright, a political analyst and former Conservative staffer, saw the move as a red flag and said she’s “not very optimistic” with the cabinet choices, especially given the Immigration and Public Safety portfolios—two files that disproportionately affect racialized people—are overseen by white men.

It was “shocking” to see Bill Blair (Scarborough Southwest, Ont.) elevated to Public Safety Minister, added Ms. Wright, given his reputation in the community from his time as Toronto’s police chief, where he defended the service’s use of carding.

“That’s a very odd choice,” she said, while Ms. Singh said it’s “continually frustrating that his cabinet does not reflect the actual needs of the communities that require them the most—immigration, Indigenous services, even international trade—continue to be held by MPs that do not come from communities of colour.”

Ms. Singh also noted the regional breakdown, saying it suggests the Liberals are “playing from a 1990s playbook,” targeting “ethnic neighbourhoods” to recruit candidates, but not giving the successful MPs a voice in leadership positions, she said, pointing to Brampton and Scarborough in Ontario, and Surrey, B.C. Compare that to Toronto city ridings “as a microcosm,” where she said there were no people of colour on the Liberal roster, with white MPs in Davenport, Danforth, Spadina–Fort York, Toronto Centre, Beaches–East York, and Toronto–St. Paul’s in a city where 50 per cent of all people are visible minorities.

Source: ‘Disappointing’ cabinet picks show Trudeau still needs to address diversity ‘blind spot’, say advocates

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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