Immigrant Women, Equality and Diversity in Canada

Wednesday, August 11, 2020

Alexandra Dobrowolsky, Saint Mary’s University
Guest Contributor

This blog post is part of the Federation Equity Portfolio’s ‘Equality Then and Now’ series, marking 40 years since the Royal Commission on the Status of Women.

The drafters of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women (RCSW) deliberately chose to write about the inequalities facing Canadian women in general, strategically focusing on the major social, economic and political struggles women in Canada experienced as a whole.  By doing so, the Commissioners “wrote out” many women’s specific realities: from the more precarious rights status of lesbians, to the higher citizenship hurdles faced by immigrant women. While there were some exceptions (for example, the discussion of Aboriginal women), the overall the choice was made to deal with women as if they were an undifferentiated group.

In the decades that followed, however, diverse women showed the limitations of this type of “sameness” approach. And so, as Caroline Andrew has argued in her blog post for this special series, perhaps one of the greatest changes that came in the wake of the RCSW Report was the growth in appreciation of women’s diversity, and the recognition of intersectionality: the understanding that women are never just women, but have multiple cross-cutting identities revolving around race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, age, ability, and citizenship status.

Today, however, both equality and diversity are increasingly under fire. For instance, Janine Brodie, in this series and elsewhere, details women’s “disappearance” or “invisibilization” from Canadian politics and policy. Here I want to suggest that some women find themselves in the paradoxical position of being both “invisible” and yet all too visible, even “hyper visible.” This seems to be the case for immigrant women, especially those who are racialized.

In this blog, I would like to reflect on the status of this particular group of women who were not mentioned in the RCSW Report in order to show that they are still being “written out” of policy decisions, to draw attention to the ways they are currently being “framed” in the popular press and with what political consequences.

As we shall see, these strategic depictions serve to convey some larger and troubling messages having to do with equality, diversity and about who truly “belongs” in Canada.

To illustrate, let’s consider a few contemporary developments involving shifts in immigration policy, recent preoccupations with security, and related debates around social integration and social cohesion. All three highlight how and why immigrant women are, in one sense, “in” Canada, but also, in another sense, very much “on the outs,” when it comes to equality, diversity and ultimately belonging.

While women of all kinds enter Canada through its multiple immigration streams, women still tend to be largely associated with immigration via the “family class” category. In fact, this was the way that most immigrants entered this country in the past. However, in recent decades, successive Canadian governments have re-jigged immigration priorities implicitly downgrading family class immigration, and explicitly promoting “economic” routes that have grown in scope and number. We now have several new programs and initiatives aimed at upping the entry of highly skilled, well-educated and wealthy migrants at both federal and provincial levels (e.g., from the federal government’s Experience class, to provincial nominee programs across the country).

More men are found in these preferred immigration categories, because men, in general, have greater financial capital and “human” capital in terms of the much sought after skills and education levels.  Since larger numbers of women still enter through the family class, and fewer women come as principal applicants in, for example, nominee programs, we can see how the “writing out” of women is perpetuated in current Canadian immigration priorities and policies.

Those who migrate using the preferred categories are heralded as providing economic benefits and promising candidates for quick and easy integration. This of course means that those who don’t are associated with economic costs and social challenges. More specifically, it tends to be immigrant women and their children who are disparaged as being economically “dependent” and constituting a “drain” on the welfare system.  This obscures not only the nature and extent of the paid work done by immigrant women outside the home, but also the contributions they provide through their unaccounted, unpaid or under-paid labour in the home.

More light has now been shed on the fact that security preoccupations in the aftermath of 9/11 led to scandalous rights infractions. However, the impact this has had on women has largely been left in the shadows. The so-called “war on terror” spawned security crackdowns that were widely felt, but certain groups of men were profiled and felt a much tighter security grip.

The portrait of a terrorist featured traits that included being a male, a Muslim, often an immigrant, and usually having Middle Eastern or South Asian origins.  Of course, this portrayal was both stereotypical and misconceived in that “terrorists” can be either male or female, and the instigators of attacks before and after September 11 were typically “home grown”, i.e., not immigrants. Yet, the “war on terror” involved, primarily, male decision-makers targeting racialized masculinity and pointing an accusing finger at migrants.

Consider here the immediately articulated, but false, American claims that the September 11 attackers had slipped through Canada’s “porous” border. Political leaders in the United States, Canada and abroad proceeded to maximize national security priorities, and in so doing, minimized broader human security concerns. These human security matters (e.g., the right to personal, economic, food, health, environmental, community, political security) are the very issues that are voiced and acutely felt by women, particularly migrant women.

With the profiling, detention, incarceration, and in some cases even torture, of male terrorist suspects, there is little consideration of the plight of the women in their lives or what happens to their families. Typically, it is left to the women, to the suspects’ wives and mothers, to pick up the pieces stemming from their husband or son’s ordeals, and to deal with the fallout for their immediate and extended families.  For example, we eventually learned the sordid details of Maher Arar’s  personal trauma (after being detained in the US, deported to Syria and then tortured, before being allowed to return to his home in Canada). But it was only through the persistent efforts of Arar’s wife, Monia Mazigh, that the media gave some indication of the economic, physical, and emotional effects that also extended to Arar’s family. And still, this experience provides a notable exception. Rather, the repercussions for women caught in the “war on terror” typically remain unexamined.

On one hand, women’s concerns are invisible, but on the other hand, some women appear more visible post 9/11, and with problematic results. For instance, women who wear a hijab, niqab or burka are more visible targets at security checkpoints. In addition, we are now seemingly bombarded with racialized images of Muslim women, who are usually veiled, and all too frequently depicted as subjugated migrants. Invariably, the real story is far more complicated. Consider again the case of Arar and Mazigh: both were actually Canadian citizens; it was Mazigh’s tireless advocacy that can be credited with drawing attention to, and providing redress for, her husband; and her political activism continued in multiple realms, including running for elected office.

Nevertheless, assorted “veil rows” in courtrooms, on sports fields, and in front of ballot boxes, have become ever more constant sources of media attention. With them is a distinct undertone that these women are newcomers who just need to conform to “Canadian” ways. To be sure, there are longstanding patterns of immigrant women being treated as “markers” of ethnic and national difference, or serving as the biological and social “reproducers” of ethnic and national identities.  And, women have long been considered flashpoints for conflicts between the so-called “East” and “West.” However, in the context of the “war against terror,” we have certainly seen growing uneasiness with these roles and representations, as well as greater support for “integration,” and even of “sameness” over “diversity.”

All this feeds into sensationalist headlines such as this one featured on the front page of Canada’s national newspaper, “Are They an Impediment to Integration?”  It was followed by a large colour photograph of a number of young women dancing in saris in the living room of their Canadian home. For a start, the headline is highly suggestive of “us/them” or “with us or against us” formulations that flag some much larger questions about what has to be done to truly “belong.” Secondly, this deliberate headline/photo pairing clearly alludes to the idea that women are the carriers of “traditional” culture, and that they, in turn, can serve as potential barriers to integration, and even social cohesion.

Forty years after the RCSW, women continue to challenge this imagery and these problematic associations. Indeed, their actions disrupt dominant depictions and roles, from Monia Mazigh’s political activism, to hijab wearing girls demanding to be able to play soccer and hockey.  However, the problem remains that the more limited portrayals are pervasive, and that they lead to some contentious associations, namely that certain immigrant women and their “traditions” may be hampering integration… and even hindering equality.  And so, rather than seeking to promote women’s equality, along with greater awareness and acceptance of diversity, these representations are being used to erase difference, underline sameness, and underscore a growing backlash against multiculturalism.

As a result, recent trends around immigration, security, and social cohesion illustrate how and why immigrant women, especially those who are racialized, are “in” Canada, but also very much “on the outs” when it comes to equality, diversity and belonging.  Ironically, in my interviews with immigrants, especially immigrant women, they describe their rationale for coming to Canada as being rooted in notions of safety and security, as well as this country’s reputed championing of equality and diversity.

What this suggests to me is that current political developments that serve to diminish equality and diversity actually create more insecurity, and thus pose substantial threats to social cohesion and overall well being.  It is, therefore, Canada’s very commitments to equality and diversity that need to be reinvigorated in order to truly foster meaningful and a lasting sense of belonging for women and men, now and into the future.

Alexandra Dobrowolsky is a professor of political science at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. 


It is important to keep in mind the social context of the time. When I interviewed Florence Bird in 1992 for my book The Satellite Sex, which examined the media coverage of the RCSW, I asked her if she had had any letters or briefs from lesbians and she said no. Given the fact that lesbians had no legal protections (and neither did gay men), it would have been astounding if a lesbian had said she wanted to speak out, especially in public. Women of colour and other specifically "ethnic" ones did not as groups respond to the letters, publicity circulars and other means of reaching them that the RCSW send out in 1967-68, before the public hearings began. They did not represent as large a proportion of Canadians as they do today, were likely more focused on racial discrimination than gender bias in the 1960s, and simply might not have felt comfortable coming to such a public forum, the way a number of Aboriginal women did. Individual ethnic-European women complained about being treated as appendages to their husbands when they immigrated to Canada, and one Black woman, Carrie Best of Nova Scotia, spoke up at the floor mike about the importance of education for women of colour and Aboriginal women. Chapter 8, and to a less extent, chapter 3, of the RCSW Report does talk about the need to help immigrant women break their isolation through language training, better education and other means, all with a view of integrating them into Canadian society. Yes, the RCSW was very limited in its outlook compared to what a similar Commission might regard as important to women today, but, for its time, it was considered ground-breaking and one of the most effective Royal Commissions in Canadian history. We have not accomplished all we asked for back then, especially a national daycare system, but there have been a number of legal remedies to inequality that the Commission recommended, and women's groups since then have accomplished even more on their own; for example, setting up shelters for battered women - a topic the RCSW did not touch and should have. A lot of women were inspired by the RCSW to go further than we had done before. It pains me to see how feminist voices have taken a back seat in government circles to reactionary ones these days because there is still a lot of work to do.