Today, as attitudes toward different cultures evolve, so too do the terms used to describe the nation’s various population groups. Knowing which terms to use, and to whom they apply, can often be challenging. The use of appropriate language, however, is fundamental to ensuring respectful and positive relationships among people of different ethno-cultural backgrounds. It is also fundamental to avoiding terms that may be discriminatory or offensive. Statistics Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey respondents reported more than 200 ethnic origins, and over 40% of respondents reported more than one ethnic origin. In such a diverse population, it can be challenging to know how to identify individuals. This HillNote provides suggestions for navigating some of these complexities of terminology.
Significant link between terminology and identity
There is a significant link between terminology and identity. The words we use to describe ourselves help to create our identities. For that reason, terminology may reflect how a particular group understands itself. There can be tensions around the meaning and application of terms used to describe groups that have been disadvantaged in the past, some of whom may continue to experience inequities. This is the case particularly with respect to terms that define these groups by comparing them to a “white” norm, or terms that ignore differences within a group.
The debate over “visible minority”
The Employment Equity Act and Statistics Canada use the term “visible minority” to define “persons, other than aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour.” This definition is used throughout the federal public service. However, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has twice, in 2007 and 2012, called on Canada to reconsider using the term “visible minority.” The committee stated that the term’s “lack of precision may pose a barrier to effectively addressing the socio-economic gaps of different ethnic groups.” The UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues has also stated that Canada’s use of the term “has served to obscure and dilute the differences and distinct experiences of diverse minority groups.” In addition, the Ontario Human Rights Commission has recommended that, where it is necessary to use a broad, general term, the terms “racialized person” or “racialized group” be used instead of expressions such as “racial minority,” “visible minority,” “person of colour” or “non-White.” This is because the word “racialized” is a reminder that “race” is a social construct imposed on people rather than an objective, scientifically recognized biological distinction. The Commission also recommended against using terms such as “visible minority” because they treat “white” as the norm to which these groups are to be compared. The Canadian Race Relations Foundation’s glossary (58 kB, 18 pages) is consistent with the Commission’s recommendations, with one exception. Unlike the Commission, the glossary states that “people of colour” is the term many prefer, as it emphasizes the impact of skin colour on an individual’s daily experiences, and is more positive than “non-White” or “minority.”
Some thoughts to consider
These differences of opinion illustrate the challenges in identifying appropriate terms and the ongoing debate about terminology. Terms evolve over time as their meanings are disputed, contested and reconstituted to reflect changing social attitudes. Following are some issues to consider when referring to ethno-cultural identities:
- The term “visible minority” is established in Canadian law and, as such, is sometimes necessary in a legal or administrative context. In other instances, terms such as “racialized group” or “person of colour” may be more appropriate. (The term “person of colour” is not to be confused with “Colored/Coloured people,” a term used in the United States for black people prior to the civil rights movement and as a category in South Africa to refer to individuals of mixed ethnic origin).
- It is best to use the most specific term possible, focusing on national or ethnic origin, to avoid broad or inaccurate generalizations (for example, “Indonesian” rather than “Asian”).
- In English, “black” should be used as an adjective – for example, “black person” – not as a noun. Alternatives include “African Canadian” or “person of African descent.”
- The “race” or ethnicity of a person need only be mentioned where it is relevant.
- Because not everyone agrees about terminology, it is generally preferable to provide an opportunity for an individual to self-identify. When individuals object to a term, it is best to avoid using it to describe them.
Julia Nicol, Legal and Social Affairs Division