Divided Views on the Senate’s Ethnic Diversity - New Canadian Media

Divided Views on the Senate’s Ethnic Diversity

Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently announced a moratorium on further Senate appointments, seemingly hoping it will lead to the natural demise of the Upper House. Opposition leader Thomas Mulcair has also called for the abolition of this “archaic system”, while Liberal leader Justin Trudeau envisions a reformed Senate independent of party affiliation. Some argue though that despite its failings, the Senate has some merit, because it has made fairly significant strides in representing Canada’s ethnic diversity. “In recent years the Senate has come to bolster representation of groups underrepresented in Parliament such as [Aboriginal peoples], visible minorities and women,” says

Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently announced a moratorium on further Senate appointments, seemingly hoping it will lead to the natural demise of the Upper House. Opposition leader Thomas Mulcair has also called for the abolition of this “archaic system”, while Liberal leader Justin Trudeau envisions a reformed Senate independent of party affiliation.

Some argue though that despite its failings, the Senate has some merit, because it has made fairly significant strides in representing Canada’s ethnic diversity.

“In recent years the Senate has come to bolster representation of groups underrepresented in Parliament such as [Aboriginal peoples], visible minorities and women,” says a note on the Senate’s own website.

At first glance, the current membership of the Senate would appear to be impressively diverse, with nearly all eight visible minority senators marking a historical milestone with their appointment: Salma Ataullahjan, Conservative, first Pakistani; Anne Cools, independent, born in Barbados, first Black; Tobias Enverga, Conservative, first Filipino; Mobina Jaffer, Liberal, born in Uganda, first Muslim; Don Meredith, Conservative, first Jamaican; Thanh Hai Ngo, Conservative, first Vietnamese; Victor Oh, Conservative, born in Singapore of Chinese descent and Yonah Martin, Conservative, first Korean.

Not a true mirror of diversity

But Kai L. Chan, a non-partisan researcher from Toronto who is currently based in Dubai, strongly disagrees that this truly represents the diversity of Canada.

Chan concludes that with 23.3 per cent of visible minorities in the population, and fewer than 10 per cent in both Houses of Parliament, the House of Commons and Senate fail miserably in mirroring the diversity of Canada.

His September 2014 report entitled Canada’s Governing Class: Who Rules the Country? shows that the federal New Democratic Party comes closest to matching Canada’s visible minority and gender realities.

Chan concludes that with 23.3 per cent of visible minorities in the population, and fewer than 10 per cent in both Houses of Parliament, the House of Commons and Senate fail miserably in mirroring the diversity of Canada.

Similarly, Leo Housakos, appointed 44th Speaker of the Senate on May 4, 2015, had scathing comments on Canada’s multiculturalism policy.

In an article published in the Globe and Mail on March 11, 2013, Housakos, the son of Greek immigrant parents, wrote:

“[B]eneath any good intentions, was a political strategy to buy ethnic votes. Multiculturalism became a state-financed marketing program. The government used tax dollars to buy photo ops with ethnic leaders … It would translate into broader support in general elections.”

An ongoing journey

Opinion is sharply divided on whether or not the presence of visible minority senators in the Red Chamber is advancing the goal of political and social inclusion for all Canadians.

“It’s micro-targeting the ethnic voter,” says Andrew Cardozo, President of the Pearson Centre for Progressive Policy, an Ottawa think-tank that focuses on several policy areas including immigration and democratic reform. “The eight visible minority senators don’t play a major role in the mainstream of Senate affairs. They are not movers or shakers, but toe the party line.”

[Andrew Cardozo] points out when “ethnic” senators are photographed, for example, hosting an Iftar dinner (to break the fast observed by Muslims during Ramadan) at the prime minister’s residence, or welcoming the prime minister of India, it creates the illusion among voters of certain communities that they truly belong.

Cardozo says all political parties make this kind of appointment and that it is not the exclusive practice of any one of them.

He points out that when “ethnic” senators are photographed, for example, hosting an Iftar dinner (to break the fast observed by Muslims during Ramadan) at the prime minister’s residence, or welcoming the prime minister of India, it creates the illusion among voters of certain communities that they truly belong.

Cardozo concedes that there are some notable exceptions such as Conservative Donald Oliver – the first Black Canadian man to be appointed to Senate – who retired in 2013. Oliver raised $500,000 to initiate the Conference Board of Canada’s 2005 study that shed light on the barriers preventing visible minorities from advancing in private and public sectors in Canada.

Goldy Hyder, former Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Joe Clarke and currently President and CEO of Hill and Knowlton Strategies, a public relations and communications company, strongly disagrees with Cardozo.

“It’s not fair to suggest that these (visible minority) senators are not playing a significant role,” he says. “Some are making a concerted effort and others with less political experience are learning on the job.”

“Political parties have a responsibility to reach out and attract a diverse base of qualified people. But it’s also up to members of visible minority communities to put up their hands and participate in the political process.” – Goldy Hyder

Hyder says from his perspective – without reference to statistics – the Senate has become more ethnically diverse in recent times. “There is still much to be done, and it’s an ongoing journey,” he adds.

He emphasizes that inclusion is a dual responsibility.

“Political parties have a responsibility to reach out and attract a diverse base of qualified people,” he says. “But it’s also up to members of visible minority communities to put up their hands and participate in the political process.”

Experiences of one ethnic senator

Senator Salma Ataullahjan, the first Pakistani Canadian to be appointed Senator, concurs with Hyder. She says it is critical for all ethnic communities to get involved politically – whether by voting, participating in community work or coming forward as candidates.

Ataullahjan, who marked the fifth anniversary of her appointment as senator in July, practises what she preaches. Arriving in Canada in 1980 from Pakistan, she pursued a career in real estate, and while raising two daughters, became deeply engaged in community work, volunteering for a number of organizations that help people in Pakistan and Canada.

“In my case, the Prime Minister wanted a Muslim voice in his party’s caucus.” – Senator Salma Ataullahjan

Finally, she ran as the Conservative party candidate from Mississauga-Brampton in the 2008 election, but was not discouraged when she didn’t win. “That’s how I came to the party’s attention,” she tells New Canadian Media. “Two years later, when Prime Minister Harper appointed me to the Senate, it was a dream come true.”

Asked if she was chosen to represent her ethnic community, she says “yes,” pointing out 3.2 per cent of Canada’s population is of Pakistani origin.

“In my case,” explains Ataullahjan, “the Prime Minister wanted a Muslim voice in his party’s caucus.”

Reiterating her consistent message to all ethnic communities, she says: “It’s important to be involved despite the challenges of immigrating to a new country and to be at the table where decisions are made.”

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