In a Commons speech last week to Daughters of the Vote, an event to promote women in politics, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stressed that trust among members of his government is an overarching imperative. The speech came just a day after former cabinet ministers Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott had been ejected from the Liberal caucus in the continuing fallout from the SNC-Lavalin affair.

“There are always going to be a range of perspectives that we need to listen to,” Trudeau said.  “But ultimately 
 diversity only works if there is trust. And within a team, when that trust gets broken, we have to figure out how to move forward.”

But how do the stated Liberal ideals of trust and diversity work together in this context? Both former ministers are women – a gender-balanced cabinet was a Liberal commitment – and  Wilson-Raybould is a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations community. Trudeau’s statements imply that diversity is welcome, but will be conditional upon loyalty. It further follows that when situated “within a team,” loyalty will invariably be defined by the majority in that group, or driven by those holding power sitting at the top.

So, how do we avoid diversity from becoming tokenism under the leanings of the majority? What can be done to ensure that alternative voices are not only present but also heard in a constructive manner in politics and government?

As a country built on the lands of Indigenous peoples and with the labour of generations of immigrants, Canadians understand the value and importance of diversity, equity and inclusion in how we do government. Not only are these principles embedded in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but their respect is needed to maintain social cohesion and grow our economy inclusively. Walking the walk on diversity and inclusion at home is also critical to maintaining our moral authority and soft power abroad.

Of course, effectively realizing diversity and inclusion in the practice of government and policymaking remains a challenge. An important place to start is to go beyond improving representation of diverse groups, and ensuring that these groups are accorded a meaningful voice in politics and government.

In the same speech to the Daughters of the Vote event, the Prime Minister expressed his support for the importance of diversity in politics, including “hearing different voices, listening, learning from each other, and figuring a path forward.” But in a deeply polarized political climate, it’s difficult to see this path forward. The intensely gendered responses from some of Wilson-Raybould’s and Philpott’s colleagues as well as some media commentary  and the public at large are troubling.

In unpacking how the matter has been handled and covered, we need to interrogate our commitment to diversity, particularly in terms of who is speaking as well as what they have to say. In the case of Wilson-Raybould and Philpott, this means respecting the positions they took on the handling of the SNC-Lavalin matter, which were informed by their understandings of accountability and governance. Wilson-Raybould, who has called herself a “truth teller” in accordance with the laws and traditions of her people, directly linked her commitment to the rule of law to her indigeneity.

“My understanding of the rule of law has also been shaped by my experience as an Indigenous person and leader,” she said in her statement to the Commons Justice committee in February. “The history of Crown-Indigenous relations in this country includes a history of the rule of law not being respected.”

Diversity invariably brings different points of view that further nuance public policy and its responsiveness to our needs. Characterizing under-represented voices that express dissent as not being “team players” does a disservice to a collective commitment to inclusion. According respect to under-represented voices gives power to those voices. In so doing, we ensure that feminism is not simply tokenism, or that multiculturalism means more than just a celebration of cultures.

As a former trial attorney for a war-crimes tribunal, I have witnessed first-hand the damage that corruption and exclusionary politics can inflict on the rule of law and the delicate democratic fabric that keeps nations together and allows them to prosper. To buttress its commitment to promoting equality notwithstanding the current controversy, members of the government have been highlighting Canada’s work abroad, in particular, through the Feminist International Assistance Policy.

Before any government policy is feted, we need to assess its results. To date, Canada has appointed only one woman as ambassador to the United Nations (appointments to international organizations have also historically overlooked racialized people). Imagine the powerful message of our commitment to inclusion if we were to send an Indigenous woman to New York as UN ambassador? Or an Afghan-Canadian to NATO? Going forward, all eyes should be on performance: Are recent increases in the number of women and minorities as heads of mission and across Global Affairs Canada accompanied by real responsibilities and a purposeful say at the table? Again, diverse voices need to be accorded respect to avoid being tokens.

Eventually, the fallout and media coverage of the political scandal underpinning the SNC-Lavalin affair will fade. However, as we embrace political parties and governments that more accurately reflect our pluralistic society, the challenging “path forward” identified by the prime minister still has to be taken. Canadians will still need a balance to be struck between party or departmental politics and demonstrating real respect for diversity. Giving meaningful voice to under-represented voices requires a willingness to compromise and look beyond the majority view. Our nation’s fundamental values in fairness, dignity and tolerance provide important guideposts on that forward path.

Photo: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, fifth from left, and Governor General David Johnston, centre, pose for a group photo with the new Liberal cabinet at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Nov. 4, 2015.

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Sharanjeet Parmar
Sharanjeet Parmar is an international human-rights lawyer and president of Glasshouse Initiatives Inc., a development consulting firm. A former war-crimes prosecutor, she previously lectured at Harvard Law School.

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