Talking about race is not racism.

The complainant, Oliver Alexander, thought a story about an all-white city council in a city with 57% visible minority population was racist. He thought the implication was that the white councillors were unsuited because of the colour of their skin. That was not the case - the piece looked at the attempts to find diversity and better representation.

COMPLAINT

During the recent municipal election campaigns, CBC News Toronto published an article entitled: Mississauga’s population is 57% visible minorities. So why does its city council look like this?” Beneath the headline was an array of photos of the 12 men and women who were incumbents; all of them were white. You thought the article was racist. You said a person’s skin color should not be the determinant of whether they are suitable to hold public office:

Having the faces of the city council members who don't fit the ideal skin colour, as if they did something wrong being born with their skin colour, is racist.

You elaborated that one’s skin color is not what makes it possible to understand someone who is different. You asked what is meant by diversity - is it skin color or the way one thinks. You thought that it is possible to study another culture and reach out to other communities so that an elected official could adequately represent people who are different from him or her:

Do we want elected officials who are the most competent and do the most to understand the needs of their constituency, or do we just want our elected officials to look a certain way? The article did not establish that the people whose faces the CBC posted are not reaching out to their constituency and performing their task competently. The article did suggest, however, that the people to whom these faces belong may not be competent based on their skin colour.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer for CBC News Toronto, Laura Green, responded to your concerns. She told you the intent of the piece was not to cast doubt on the abilities or fitness of any of the sitting councillors to hold office because of their skin color. Rather, it was highlighting some of the diverse candidates who were running in the election who were hoping to ensure that elected bodies in the province of Ontario are a more accurate reflection of the population that lives there. She explained:

As cities grow and expand, it's part of our mandate as the public broadcaster to explore how they are changing and whether elected officials are adequately meeting the demands and shifting priorities of their constituents. As the GTA's population becomes more diverse, elected officials have acknowledged the need to do more to ensure better representation in elected office.

She pointed out that one of those elected officials, the Mayor of Mississauga, Bonnie Crombie, is quoted in the article stating that she also wished there was more diversity on the city council so that it could be more effective in meeting the needs of the citizens of that city. The article noted that Ms. Crombie had established a diversity and inclusion advisory committee as a way to respond to the needs of her constituents. Ms. Green added this indicated that elected officials themselves are looking for ways to expand diversity.

REVIEW

As you referenced in your correspondence, CBC in its own Journalistic Standards and Practices holds diversity as a critical part of its mission and the principles guiding its journalism:

We are committed to reflecting accurately the range of experiences and points of view of all citizens. All Canadians, of whatever origins, perspectives and beliefs, should feel that our news and current affairs coverage is relevant to them and lives up to our principles.

We have a special responsibility to reflect regional and cultural diversity, as well as fostering respect and understanding across regions.

Flowing from that is the journalistic principle of diversity:

We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion. Our content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matter and views.

So to answer your question, what is meant here - thought or skin color - the answer is the two are entwined. There is no assumption that people from different cultural backgrounds would not share views or ideas - but it is through their particular experience that they bring value to the table. There is nothing at all racist in stating we have different upbringings, culture and belief systems. It is hardly a radical notion in this day and age that diversity enriches the public discourse. Governments and many institutions such as universities, broadcasters, newspapers and corporations have made it a goal and have gone about expanding those who they hire in order to tap into that richness. Corporate Boards are working toward greater representation of women. That’s not sexist, it’s good business practice.

As Ms. Green pointed out in her response to you, it is a goal shared by the mayor of Mississauga. There is absolutely nothing in the article which implies the people who are incumbents are incapable or don’t deserve to be elected. It is a fact that they don’t reflect the range of the population they serve. The mayor thought that presented some challenges and explained what she was doing to try to bring a broader range of views and experience to the governing of her city. The article points out that one of the challenges is that some younger candidates who are from diverse communities face the fact that generally in municipal elections it is difficult to unseat an incumbent. In no way does it call into question the legitimacy of those councillors.

I appreciate you believe that a person of one background through study and attention can just as effectively represent all citizens. There are other schools of thought - ones that guide many institutions - and those are that lived experience and the richness of our particular backgrounds contributes to a richer and more effective universal and collective reality. It is not a zero-sum game. Pointing out that a city council does not reflect the makeup of its population leads to a discussion of a matter of public policy and in the public interest. Acknowledging our differences does not imply that there is blame, it is acknowledging a reality. It is a reality that has some bearing on public policy and how it is made. It doesn’t imply that individuals don’t deserve their jobs, or they have done something wrong - it is an observation about a systemic challenge in politics and in other sectors of public engagement. The subheadline of the piece is “Elections put attention on disparity between populations and makeup of city councils.” That is what it was about, and there is nothing racist in exploring it. In fact, publishing a story based on the ideas and experience of some young candidates who are also people of color honors CBC’s mission to reflect Canadians to each other and to hold a mirror up to their concerns and experiences.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman