Political scientist Malinda S. Smith leads the fight for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

"We are seeing the great social transformation of Canadian society."

Donna McKinnon - 23 March 2018

An analysis of data collected in the 2016 census shows that Canada is becoming increasingly diverse, particularly in cities like Toronto and Vancouver. More than 7.6 million Canadians identify as a visible minority, representing 22 per cent of the population, and yet diversity alone does not guarantee inclusion or equitable treatment. Far from it. To be at the table as an equal partner is, in some ways, a much steeper hill to climb, says political scientist Malinda S. Smith.

Systemic discrimination has proven difficult to dislodge, and Smith notes that although she has seen some movement within equity-seeking groups, in particular the status of primarily white women and the rights of LGTBQ2S, other groups, such as visible minorities, Indigenous and persons with disabilities, have not fared as well. Part of the problem is that these groups are often seen in isolation, which sets up competing interests, hierarchies and exclusions - not a strategy for success. What is needed, she says, is a broader conversation around intersectionality.

"We need to be attentive to the ways in which diversity is a fact of life, as outlined in the census data, but inclusion is a skill," she says. "You can have diversity, but those diverse individuals and groups can be treated inequitably. People can be segregated, marginalized; they can be on the outside looking in. It's not one size fits all."

Smith has been dealing with issues of equity, diversity and inclusion on a professional - and personal level - her entire life. Growing up in the Bahamas, she experienced first-hand how girls were treated differently from boys, how racial inequalities and socioeconomic divides created barriers to success. She persisted, however, and her intellectual gifts (and a field hockey scholarship to the University of Idaho!) set her on a path to an academic life as a professor and social justice advocate.

In her two decades at the University of Alberta, Smith has been at the helm of equity and inclusion initiatives, helping to usher in same sex benefits for U of A employees, fighting for official recognition of Black History Month in Alberta, and most recently, co-authoring The Equity Myth: Racialization and Indigeneity at Canadian Universities (UBC Press, 2017).

Smith argues that not enough attention is paid in Canada to equity issues at the micro-level, in the administrative offices and in particular, the departments, which she calls the "gateways and gatekeepers" of equitable workplaces.

"This is where people survive and thrive and may face harassment and discrimination," she says. "All students come through departments, academics are primarily hired into the departments, many staff enter through departments. What kind of equitable environment agenda are faculties setting? This is our future, and we have not yet found ways of working together in an equitable way, and if the universities can't do it, then who can? It's our responsibility, our moral obligation, to lead this change."

After three decades, Smith says institutions across Canada, the University of Alberta included, are in a 'rethinking' moment, adding that many of the "token gestures" around equity, diversity and inclusion lack the robust accountability structure to ensure these policies are translated into action.

"We are seeing the great social transformation of Canadian society, where some cities already have 50 or 60 percent visible minorities. Women are 50% of the population and 60% of our undergraduates. We are on our way to seeing visible majorities - when all of us in Canadian society will be one kind of a minority or another. We see a backlash with the rise of the alt-right and racism against immigrants and minorities on campuses and I don't think we are connecting the dots. Universities need to be much more attentive to equity. The world has changed, and what cuts across all of that is the need to think about under-representation and also over-representation. We cannot persist in being so radically out of step with the larger population and our student body. We must attend to this disconnect or face irrelevance."

Smith says she feels obliged to continue her work to ensure that everyone has a voice and an opportunity to sit at the table, now and for the generations that follow.

"We need to realize that it's not attitudinal," she says. "It's not about whether people have goodwill; it's about whether people have the skills to recognize the importance of why this is the right thing to do. Why it's also going to be to our disadvantage to exclude from full participation the great complexity of Canadian society."

Malinda Smith's commitment to the principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion have earned her one of the University of Alberta's 2018 EDI Awards, along with two other Faculty of Arts recipients Michael Frishkopf and Lori Myers. The EDI Awards celebrate achievement in community service, research, and workplace or classroom environments by all members of the University of Alberta campus community.

2018 EDI Award Winners

Michael Frishkopf, Professor, Director, Canadian Centre for Ethnomusicology, Faculty of Arts
Louanne Keenan, Director/Comm. Engagement Research, Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry
Lori Myers, Aboriginal Student Advisor, Faculty of Arts
Megha Sharma, Undergraduate Student, Faculty of Engineering
Malinda S. Smith, Professor, Department of Political Science, Faculty of Arts
Nathan Sunday, Undergraduate Student, Faculty of Native Studies

This article originally appeared in THE QUAD