Electoral Voices: Ashima Sumaru-Jurf and the Centre for Race and Culture | By Kate McInnes

Electoral Voices is a series that gives people and organizations around Edmonton a chance to voice their views and concerns regarding the candidates, parties, and platforms vying for power in the upcoming federal election.

In a country with the highest ethnic diversity rank in the world, inclusion just isn’t enough.

It is obvious that issues regarding immigration and the state of multiculturalism in Canada have been pushed to the forefront of this federal election, most notably in Conservative leader Stephen Harper’s push for a ban of the niqab during citizenship ceremonies. In a country where the proportion of people born abroad is over 50% in some urban centres, it is not surprising for issues related to multiculturalism to arise.

Since the push for multicultural policy under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, federal programs such as the Stop Racism campaign that peaked in the 1970s have been replaced by organizations and programs that focus on supporting newly arrived immigrants find accreditation and access to employment. Some organizations, however – like the Canadian Centre for Race and Culture (CRC) – have begun to focus on promoting change to systemic racism by encouraging “intercultural understanding” within corporations, organizations, and governments with the ultimate goal of creating an inclusive society free of racism. Ashima Sumaru-Jurf, a senior consultant at the CRC, highlighted that the Centre’s work as of late has concentrated mostly on consulting businesses and communities to address challenges and opportunities that diversity may present: “[We have] a really varied group of clients, from the private sector to unions to municipalities.”

The New Democratic Party’s (NDP) platform claims to be committed to “offering grants to professional bodies to develop harmonized standards for credential recognition” of visible minorities in Canada. Though the CRC is funded by Alberta’s Ministry for Justice and Ministry for Culture and Tourism, Sumaru-Jurf said that it is difficult to see the impact made by the recent election of the NDP majority in Alberta. “To be honest, it’s really hard to gauge what things are being driven by people in the [government] who now have more of an opportunity to push things like anti-oppression and cultural competency…or what’s the continuation of things that are already being done,” she said, also noting that she has yet to see any new funding sources come out of the provincial government for work on diversity, inclusion, or cultural competency.

The CRC is also funded by Public Safety Canada and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, two departments within the federal government. Sumaru-Jurf stressed the need for an incoming prime minister to make a commitment to the inclusion of ethnic minorities in Canada, rather than pledging to fostering diversity. “We can be diverse, because that’s just a state of being — that isn’t something we’ve achieved,” she said. “Inclusion is a much more difficult piece of the diversity equation, [because] you’re actively valuing those differences and using those differences to create something better than you could using a non-diverse approach.”

It is important to make a distinction between inclusion – the state of including a group within a structure – and equity, where parties acknowledge the social, economic, and historic reasons for why individuals may not seem to be on a level playing field. As several commentators have noted, policies that stress fairness as uniform distribution tend to succeed with the public because they appear to entitle everyone and thus reinforce the dominant Western construction of fairness as equality. Conversely, policies aiming to achieve equity face the recurring challenge of being perceived as “unfair.” A notable example would be affirmative action programs in Canada, where there is a focus on increasing the representation of women, Aboriginal people, and people with disabilities in the workforce.

“If you treat everybody the same, you’re just going to reproduce the same outcomes generation after generation,” Sumaru-Jurf said. “An equity approach is thinking about how we can level the playing field, because [some forms of] disadvantage are harder to see.” According to Sumaru-Jurf, some of the best research on innovation and problem-solving in Canada is based on an equitable approach. She asserted that the federal government should capitalize on that.  “Some of the best research…[harnesses] differences in individuals, and part of that is getting diverse folks in a room together to work through problems,” she said. “I’d like to see that tie back to equity, so the policies we get are equitable policies – not ones where we’re treating everybody as one family, but acknowledging that we have a variety of families out there.”

Ultimately, Sumaru-Jurf is looking for a federal acknowledgment of racism and a nationwide commitment to “approaching and healing” it in order to construct a more inclusive Canada. “We are really looking for those leaders who are mentioning a commitment to both inclusion and equity.”


CC Banner photography courtesy of Jessica Gale; banner design courtesy of Wanderer Online Design Editor Janelle Holod.

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