Political Science Now

The Puzzling Persistence of Racial Inequality in Canada

Chapter 8: The Puzzling Persistence of Racial Inequality in Canada

Keith Banting, Queen’s University
Debra Thompson, Northwestern University

“Aboriginal peoples have come to define themselves less as separate races and more as separate nations with distinctive identities, cultures, languages, and goals of self-determination.”

This chapter examines the puzzling persistence of racial economic disparities in Canada, which continue despite a social safety net and a model of diversity governance that many assume are far more robust, redistributive, and egalitarian than those that exist south of the 49th parallel. Many racial minorities remain disadvantaged compared to white Canadians, and the picture is even more troubling for Aboriginal peoples, who face incredible disparities in terms of almost every socioeconomic indicator. Why did not the transformative policy regimes introduced during the postwar decades in welfare, immigration, equality rights, multiculturalism, and Aboriginal policy have greater success in alleviating racial economic inequality? We argue that these policy regimes largely failed to eliminate racial inequality in Canada because, simply stated, that was not their original purpose. The policies were put in place during an era when Canada was not as racially diverse as it is now. In 1961, more than 96% of Canadians traced their ancestry to Europe, and Aboriginal people, who represented less than 2% of the population, were not politically mobilized. As a result, the postwar policy regimes were shaped primarily by the concerns of a white European population divided primarily by ethnicity, language, and culture rather than race. Canadian society and politics became more racially complex in the 1980s and 1990s as a result of changing immigration flows and the political mobilization of the Aboriginal peoples. However, established ways of thinking about difference and growing constraints on state activism ensured that the inherited policy architecture was not retooled explicitly to address racial economic inequality. The welfare state underwent major retrenchment with disproportionate—although not purposeful—effects on racial minorities.