◀︎ Methodology Contents

If you look through the source data you will see that the descriptive race column uses the categories for the Canadian “Visible Minority” framework. I used this categorization because I am Canadian and it’s the one I’m familiar with, since it’s used in the Canadian Census and therefore most other Canadian research. It also happens to line up fairly closely with the categories used by the Institute for Composer Diversity in their database.

However, it’s important to note that it has drawbacks. Any framework that attempts to provide categories for race is going to have flaws, because race is a social and political invention. The Canadian categorization was created in the 1980s for the Employment Equity Act, and has mostly remained the same since (presumably for the purpose of long-term comparability) 1.

To give more context on how quickly these concepts change, the 1971 Canadian census only asked for a single ethnic ancestry on the paternal side. The 1986 census had one question that included categories such as French, English, Scottish, Irish, Jewish, Polish, Ukrainian, and Dutch alongside Chinese (no other Asian ethnicities listed), Black, and a handful of categories for people who were Indigenous. In the current census, Visible Minority (i.e. race), ethnicity, and Indigenous identities are all addresed with distinct questions.

In my notes, the source for the details above was Jain, Harish C. “Racial Minorities and Affirmative Action/Employment Equity Legislation in Canada.” Relations Industrielles / Industrial Relations, vol. 44, no. 3, 1989, pp. 593–614. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23073601. Accessed 4 Jan. 2021.

One particularly egregious feature of the Canadian framework is that it essentially has built-in assumptions about which mixed-race people with one white parent “pass” for white. This is pretty explicitly outlined in the 2016 Census reference guide:

In the visible minority variable, persons who reported ‘South Asian,’ ‘Chinese,’ ‘Black,’ ‘Filipino,’ ‘Southeast Asian,’ ‘Korean,’ or ‘Japanese,’ in combination with ‘White’ or a write-in response are included in the visible minority count for the specific visible minority group reported. For example, respondents who checked ‘Black’ and ‘White’ are included in the ‘Black’ count. Respondents who checked ‘Black’ and wrote in ‘French’ or ‘Malaysian’ are also included in the ‘Black’ count.

In contrast, in accordance with employment equity definitions, persons who reported ‘Latin American’ and ‘White,’ ‘Arab’ and ‘White,’ or ‘West Asian’ and ‘White’ have been excluded from the visible minority population. Likewise, persons who reported ‘Latin American,’ ‘Arab’ or ‘West Asian’ and who provided a European write-in response such as ‘French’ have been excluded from the visible minority population as well. These persons are included in the ‘Not a visible minority’ category.

There is at least one case among the artists I researched where this official distinction would make a difference. However, I chose to ignore this and counted all composers who described themselves as having one white or European parent and one parent who was a person of colour as composers of colour.

For at least one of the composers this distinction applied to, I was able to find a media interview specifically asking them about whether their cultural heritage influenced their music. So, in addition to being overly-broad and presumptuous, the Canadian government definitions don’t really matter — in the world of classical music, having one non-white parent of any ethnicity is likely going to define your experience in the industry in a way that is different than the experience of a composer with two white parents.

Other Reading

This opinion piece by Professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah and Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard covers a lot of ground:

  • Describing the reluctance of Canada and some other European countries to collect race-based data, in some part out of fear of misuse
  • Arguing the benefits of using race-based data to improve outcomes in housing, education, employment, health, and criminal justice
  • Outlining some of the challenges with the “Visible Minority” designation and suggesting a more “robust” method be used instead

UN Criticism

One of the things I found interesting about the Owusu-Bempah–Thomas opinion piece is that it mentions criticism from the United Nations on Canada’s use of the Visible Minority categorization.

As far as I can understand it, the objections from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

All the records related to Canada (select the dropdown titled ‘CERD’)

The specific criticism mentioned dates all the way back to 2007 and can be found in par. 74 of the 2007 Annual Report of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

What I can glean is this: in 2006, Canada submitted a report to the committee as part of its obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The report says that the Visible Minority designation is only used for employment equity purposes:

The term “visible minority” is not used for the purposes of the equality guarantees in either the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian Human Rights Act or any of the provincial human rights codes, all of which are key components of Canada’s anti‑discrimination policy. The term is specific to the Employment Equity Act and is part of a particular program relating to employment only. The only other statute where this term is used is the Public Service Employment Act, s. 13(2), which allows for different criteria for groups identified under the Employment Equity Act to be used by the Public Service Commission in staffing processes.

The report of the committee responds as follows:

74.While noting the position of the State party according to which the use of the term “visible minorities” is specific to the Employment Equity Act and is not used for the purpose of defining racial discrimination, the Committee notes that the term is widely used in official documents of the State party, including the census. The Committee is concerned that the use of the term “visible minorities” may not be in accordance with the aims and objectives of the Convention (art. 1).

The Committee recommends that the State party reflect further, in line with article 1, paragraph 1 of the Convention, on the implications of the use of the term “visible minorities” in referring to “persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non ‑Caucasian in race or non ‑white in colour” (Employment Equity Act, 1995).

In fact, if you look at the 2006 submission, when prompted to describe Canadian demographics, the Canadian government points to… visible minority data from the census.

Some of the discussions:

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Mr. THORNBERRY, Country Rapporteur … Reiterating the concern he had expressed during consideration of Canada’s previous periodic report, he said that the term “visible minority” was troublesome. It seemed to suggest that whiteness was a standard, white people being invisible and others visible, in spite of the delegation’s assertion that the scope of the term was limited. He asked whether the term “African Canadians” was used in the legal system.

2011 Canada Submission

The Government of Canada has taken the recommendation into consideration but has no plans of changing its standard usage.

They go on to talk about how they hosted a conference of academics etc. but no-one could apparently agree on a better solution.

2012 Committee response

While appreciating the State party’s efforts, the Committee continues to have residual doubts regarding continuing use of the term “visible minorities”. The term is considered objectionable by certain minorities who claim that it is being used at all levels of the Canadian society, homogenizing experiences of different ethnic groups. Its lack of precision may pose a barrier to effectively addressing the socio-economic gaps of different ethnic groups (art. 1).

Some of the discussion:

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Mr. Kemal (Country Rapporteur) … He invited the delegation to return to the question of the use of the term “visible minorities”, pointing out that, following her mission to Canada in 2009, the Independent Expert on minority issues had reported that certain Canadian minorities, notably of African-Canadians, believed that the term “visible minorities” denied their identity.

Ms. Crickley … The term “visible minorities” did not distinguish among the different communities, and specific measures should be applied to certain minorities, such as people of African descent, who encountered a particular type of discrimination.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Mr. Lindgren Alves said that while he did not consider the State party’s expression “visible minorities” to be a problem, he had been surprised to find it used in a country that was so concerned with political correctness, to the point that it equated “non-white” with “non-Caucasian”, which was a clear semantic error.

The Wikipedia page on “Caucasian race” gives a good idea of the point being given here. The term is outdated, based on flawed thinking, and its meaning is not particularly clear. The Usage in the United States section has a great example: although many people in the US might understand “caucasian” to be a synonym for “white”, the legal history of the term in the US is more complicated. There are two supreme court cases that allowed, then later barred Hindu people from “high” castes from becoming citizens based on differing interpretations on whether they were caucasian.

Regardless, the phrase “non-Caucasian in race” is still used in the current Canadian Employment Equity Act.

2016 Canada Submission

2017 Committee Response

Seems to be a stalemate. Canada submission no longer mentions it; 2017 response re-iterates the concern.

Hard to tell because committee records for 2017 round are only in French, but doesn’t seem to have been discussed much.