Diversity Debates Over Canada’s New Cabinet

Justin Trudeau unveiled his cabinet today, making good on his promise to have equal male and female representation. He missed it by one, with 15 females in a 31 member cabinet. Today, when asked about it, he had a great reply:

It’s a great rhetorical flourish, but underlying it is the notion that we’ve waited far too long to see the diversity of real life reflected in government. There are even two aboriginal cabinet members out of a record eight aboriginal MPs.

It turns out that a lot of assholes—white males, the lot of them—are upset at this turn to diversity, grunting about merit while ignoring the fact that merit has rarely figured into cabinet. One of them—The Walrus’s editor, Jonathan Kay—even suckered me in for a time with his arguments about how class is the real frontier in diversity:

While traditional metrics of racial and gender diversity remain important considerations when building a government or professional organization, I’d argue that the most profound schism in Canadian society isn’t skin colour, gender or sexual identity. It’s social class…

As an editor, I have the privilege of working with all sorts of interesting and influential Canadians. On paper, many of these people are “diverse”—men, women, black, white, straight, gay, trans, cis, Jew, Christian, Hindu, Muslim. Yet scratch the surface, and you find a remarkable sameness to our intellectual, cultural, and political elites, no matter what words they use to self identify. In most cases, they grow up middle-class or wealthier, attend the same good schools, and join the same high-value social networks.

The first problem with Kay’s argument is that it doesn’t celebrate the momentousness or the momentum of today’s cabinet diversity. Of course this isn’t enough, but it’s something; something that moves us in the right direction. But Kay doesn’t seem to actually want diversity, he just wants to criticize today’s cabinet appointments from a less reprehensible angle.

I was fooled until I read a follow-up article—also in The Walrus—by Karen K. Ho titled Meritocracy Is a Lie, first addressing the meritocracy issue:

If we really want to get technical, it’s important to acknowledge that notions of merit have never stopped previous governments from determining the make-up of their cabinets based on a variety of criteria. As Vice Canada parliamentary reporter Justin Ling has pointed out, “regionalism, parliamentary experience, who they endorsed for leader, [and] which MP they beat” are all considered valid reasons for the job, and gender is not. In effect, quotas meant to be fair representations of a variety of different Canadian constituencies have been around for almost fifty years…

This whole debate is infuriating because the issue of meritocracy only seems to come up when the capital-e Establishment, mostly a population of well-connected white men, find themselves suddenly at the slightest risk of losing their historical stranglehold on power.

And then, addressing her own editor’s seemingly laudable class-based critique, she says:

[W]omen and people of colour, including Canada’s Aboriginal population, are more likely to experience being part of a lower class than white men. We know this from information gathered by Statistics Canada. Having more women and people of colour involved, be it in politics, business, art, activism or journalism, means you have a higher likelihood of encountering people with experiences of either being lower class or treated as lower class. Perspective is a powerful thing, especially in the halls of power, where it appears to have been historically in very short supply…

For many women and people of colour, the endless fight isn’t worth it. They quit before rising to the ranks of editor, manager, partner, designated candidate or MP. In this sense, a “meritocratic” bias simply increases the likelihood that those who rise to the top will be the same people who started out from closest to the top in the first place, as they have the least to lose and the least to overcome.

Today’s cabinet diversity is still woefully insufficient, but it’s a start.

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