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Us and them: human beings share a vast array of things in common, yet it is the small differences among us that seem to dominate interaction.

Every person is a minority of one. We are all different from each other. Even the world's largest ethnic group, the Han Chinese, of whom there are about 1.1 billion, are a minority in the world. Males outnumber females by a ratio of 101 to 100 globally. However, in Canada males are a minority (98:100); that's true of most developed countries. The world's largest religion, Christianity, is a minority on a global scale, gathering a following of less than one third of total population.

For most of human history, the notion of minorities only applied to religious followers. For Europeans, Christianity became the faith of the majority. Those who preferred other gods often met with an unpleasant fate.

The Emperor Charlemagne (742-814) conquered most of western and central Europe and brought it under the control of the Roman Catholic Church.

Charlemagne's armies marched into what is today northwestern Germany with the aim of converting the pagan Saxons. The writer Einhard travelled with Charlemagne and described what happened to 4,500 rebellious Saxons: "By the king's command they were all beheaded in one day upon the river Aller, in the place called Verden. When he had wreaked vengeance after this fashion, the king withdrew to the town of Diedenhofen for winter quarters, and there he celebrated the Nativity of our Lord and Easter as he was wont to do."

Charlemagne offered religious minorities a simple deal--convert or die. This same intolerance of minorities continued for a thousand years through the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Reformation, and countless religious wars.

Ethnic minority did not become an issue until the 19th century, when the concept of the nation state started to evolve.

The potential for conflict arose when people started to tie national identity to the dominant cultural group. Majorities in many places decided it was a good idea to stamp out cultural differences to make the entire group stronger. Not surprisingly, some minority groups didn't like the idea of losing their culture, language, and heritage. Weapons were drawn and bloodshed followed.

The blood flowed for several centuries and continues to flow today.

It wasn't until after World War II that the idea of giving legal protection to minorities began to take hold. Even then, though, it was widely believed that the rights of minorities could be secured by guarantees of individual freedoms enjoyed by all. But, such was not the case. Many countries have moved to give minorities special rights, over and above those held by the majority.

The Maoris are the original inhabitants of New Zealand but they suffered greatly at the hands of European colonizers. Today, Maoris account for only 12% of New Zealand's 3.5 million people but five seats in the 120-member House of Representatives have been set aside exclusively for them.

Lebanon has made attempts to secure minority rights within the political system for Muslims and Christians. In 1943, Christians were a majority and the National Pact said that the ratio of seats in parliament would be six Christian seats for every five Muslim seats. A Christian was to be president, a Sunni Muslim got to be prime minister, and a Shiite Muslim had the role of speaker of parliament.

However, the Muslim population grew faster than the Christian community. By the mid-1950s, the Christians were a minority and were reluctant to give the Muslim majority more power. The result was bloody conflict that drew in several neighbouring countries.

In 1990, the guns were put away and a National Reconciliation Charter set up a system more in keeping with the population balance.

In Canada, Native People are given rights not available to non-Native Canadians. The people of Quebec are guaranteed at least a quarter of the seats in Parliament and three Supreme Court justices. Prince Edward Island with a population of only 135,000 elects four Members of Parliament while the City of Mississauga, Ontario (population 620,000) also elects four MPs. So, despite constitutional promises of equality, a vote in Summerside, Prince Edward Island carries roughly four times the strength of one cast in Mississauga.

And, that brings up a problem associated with attempts to give minorities special tights; a reverse inequality is created. In trying to protect Prince Edward Island's small population from being completely swamped in Parliament, Canadians in more densely populated areas must surrender some of their rights. There's a big battle going on in the United States over this type of issue right now.

Until the mid-1960s, there were laws in the United States that barred black people and other racial minorities from certain jobs and schools. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 struck down these laws but this did not entirely solve the problem.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson said, "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and say, 'you are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair."

What is known as "affirmative action" was introduced by President Richard Nixon in 1969. This program set up goals for the hiring of minorities to bring their representation in the workforce up to their share of the overall population. The affirmative action plan applied to companies working on federal government projects and colleges and universities. If two equally qualified candidates, one white and one black, apply for a job, the black person should be hired.

Affirmative action has been controversial from the start. Critics say that giving preferential treatment to people based on their membership in a group, violates the rights of others to be treated equally under the law. These critics argue that it is unfair to discriminate against members of one group today to compensate for discrimination against other groups in the past. The issue has been given a wide airing in U.S. courts. On several occasions, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the affirmative action program is constitutional.

However, opponents have been persistent and have defeated affirmative action programs at the state and local level. In June 2003, two cases involving the University of Michigan made their way to the country's highest court. In muddled and split decisions the Supreme Court upheld affirmative action as constitutional but only if it is not too rigidly applied.

The decision closely matches the feelings of Americans. Public opinion polls show the people to be almost equally divided on affirmative action. A small majority supports the concept but not if rigid hiring quotas are set.

In democracies such as those cited above, lawyers and jurists have the freedom to spend days discussing fine points of law over protections accorded minorities. In countries where democracy is only a dream, minorities rarely get such supportive attention.

Despite the legal guarantees and international covenants, every front page and every newscast has stories of minorities having a rough time.

Many politically unstable African nations include minorities. In recent years, Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia, and Sudan have been the site of severe ethnic, religious, or clan-based feuding. Pakistan was formed in 1947 for the Muslim minority of Hindu India, but the nation combined different peoples who shared only a religion. In 1971, the Bengalis of East Pakistan cut themselves loose to form the nation of Bangladesh. Since the 1960s, Northern Ireland--largely Protestant with a sizeable Catholic minority--has witnessed much sectarian strife, although the late 1990s brought the hope of peace.

Communist nations claimed that they had no such difficulties because all ethnic groups were allowed full expression. Ethnic groups had a different take on reality and they played a crucial role in the break-up of the Soviet Union. We just have to look at what used to be Yugoslavia to see the falsehood in the claim that minorities were happy and equal members of the communist family. Under a dictator minorities tolerated one another. To do otherwise was to risk the anger of a police state. But, the control of the central government began to weaken along with that of its communist neighbours in Eastern Europe.

Slovenia and Croatia got the ball rolling in 1991. They declared themselves independent nations in June of that year. The Yugoslavian army tried to stop the split but gave up after 10 days of fighting in Slovenia and six months in Croatia. In November 1991, the Macedonians said farewell to Yugoslavia. Bosnia was next to declare its independence, in March 1992. This led to a prolonged civil war involving terrible bloodshed. Finally, Kosovo erupted into violence in the late 1990s.

The Yugoslavian state has ceased to exist. Its ethnic minorities could get along and live peacefully in a single nation only as long as a repressive central government used the machinery of a police state to keep tensions under control.

What happened in Yugoslavia represents one of the ways of protecting minorities; give them the opportunity to set up their own ethnically based nation. This is a solution that is not perfect but it does offer some physical protection for minorities at the hands of hostile majorities. One of the drawbacks is that there may be as many a 2,000 minorities worldwide that can make some sort of claim to nationhood. The less than 200 countries that exist today are not all going to agree to be carved up into little ethnic enclaves.

The other solution is to promote understanding of and respect for differences among people. This is only likely to happen within fully democratic societies and even then there are snags. However, we don't have to look far for a working model for this all-inclusive society. We have it here, in Canada.

In 1971, the federal government proclaimed multiculturalism to be its official policy. In 1982, the concept of multiculturalism was written into the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the Canadian Multiculturalism Act was proclaimed in 1988. In introducing the act, Ottawa described it as, "A concept under which diverse groups and communities are free to retain their respective identities while joining one another as equal partners in a united country."

Earlier, Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau was a bit more poetic.

In a 1972 speech, Mr. Trudeau said: "Our image is of a land of people with many differences--but many contributions, many variations in view--but a single desire to live in harmony ... On a planet of finite size, the most desirable of all characteristics is the ability and desire to cohabit with persons of differing backgrounds, and to benefit from the opportunities which this offers."

This all sounds nice on paper, but on the street the story is sometimes different. The Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation says in most Canadian cities there are now pockets of poverty in which visible minorities live. In a 2001 report, the Centre noted that: "In effect, low-income visible minority immigrant residents end up paying comparably higher rents [than white tenants] for poor quality housing and then pay a serious social price for the negative images created by the locations in which they are forced to live."


1. Commenting on the June 2003 decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, The Economist wrote that: "Affirmative action, no less than any other form of discrimination, is a bad idea which for a brief time made some sense. In the 1960s, it was right to set up some programs to help back Americans redress years of discrimination. Now, 40 years after the Civil Rights Act, the idea of reparation no longer makes sense." Meanwhile, black conservative commentator Armstrong Williams once said that, "Affirmative action affirms the stereotype that ethnic and racial minorities can never compete on an equal playing field" Use these quotations as the basis for a discussion.

2. Under the federal Employment Equity Act, quotas have been established within various job categories to ensure that aboriginal people, the disabled, women, and other visible minorities, receive an equal opportunity for employment. Provincial governments also have responsibilities to protect the tights of minorities. Appoint ten teams of students to research minority protection rules in each of the ten provinces and have the results plotted on a wall chart for comparison purposes.


Many thinkers have puzzled over why, given the overwhelming similarities among people, we often prefer to focus on the small differences. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) wrote of "the other" as a concept by which we define ourselves. There is an African saying that states: "A person only becomes a person through other people." Our individual identity is bound up with others. We form communities with people who share our beliefs, values, gender, language, etc. Each person belongs to a variety of communities and this is good.

Unfortunately, the feeling of group identity can also have a dark side: it's a short step from believing that my group is better than that other group. The positive view that "We are good," slips into the comparative idea that, "We are best." Soon, it can move to the negative construct of, "They are the worst." At that point, the "others" can be seen as subhuman and denied basic rights.


Adolf Hitler claimed he was protecting the rights of German minorities when he took over the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia in 1938 and invaded Poland in 1939, thus launching World War II. After the war, Czechoslovakia and Poland took the extreme step of deporting all Germans.


We've come a long way in a thousand years--or, have we? Robert the Pious was King of France and, as his name suggests, a strong believer in the Christian faith. He stands as one of the first to order non-believers to be burned at the stake. He started throwing heretics into the flames in 1022 and others followed his example. The persecution of those who held an opinion or doctrine not in line with the accepted teaching of the church (heretics) became organized with terrifying efficiency in 1227 with the setting up of the Inquisition.

Pope Greqory IX ordered the Inquisition to deal with the Cathars. These were people who believed that there were two creator Gods--a pure God that created the heavens and things spiritual, and an Evil God that created all things physical and earthly. They also believed that Jesus was a spirit, not a flesh and blood human being. Thus, they rejected the doctrine of the death of Jesus on the cross, and His subsequent resurrection.

For 600 years, the Roman Catholic Church hunted down and prosecuted heretics, and the state punished them, often by burning them at the stake. Jews, witches, Muslims, and many others became targets. Suspects were often tortured to extract a confession to their heresy. The most extreme cruelty was used during the Spanish Inquisition, which began in 1487. (The Spanish Inquisition remained intact for 354 years. It wasn't deactivated until 1834, when the Queen Mother Cristina announced, "It is declared that the Tribunal of the Inquisition is definitely suppressed." The last recorded death attributed to the Inquisition was in 1826 when a schoolmaster, Cayetano Ripoll, was strangled to death for allegedly teaching heresy.)

In 1519, "The Edict of Faith" was issued in Valencia, Spain. It was a list of instructions that would help the faithful spot Jews hiding in their midst. They were to look for people "... changing into clean personal linen on Saturdays and wearing better clothes than on other days; preparing on Fridays the food for Saturdays, in stewing pans on a small fire; who do not work on Friday evenings and Saturdays as on other days; who kindle lights in clean lamps with new wicks, on Friday evenings," and so on.

By the end of the 15th century, the original Papal Inquisition had pretty much run its course. However, the flames of the Inquisition would receive new life in the mid-16th century, as the Papal Inquisition was brought back to fight a new perceived enemy of the Roman Church--the Protestants. It should be noted that the Protestants themselves fought back with torture and killing.

Can we hear echoes of the Inquisition in racial profiling today? How about the imprisonment of alleged terrorists in Guantanemo Bay, Cuba? Similarities are easy to find in the search for alleged communists in the early 1950s by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy.


Since the 1960s, the United Nations has been active in establishing the rights of minorities. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) declares that, "In those states in which ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of the group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language." The Declaration of the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious, and Linguistic Minorities, was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1992. More recently, the 1966 Covenant was expanded to guarantee ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities the right to:

* participate in a nations' social, economic, and public life;

* participate effectively in decisions on the national and, where appropriate, regional level concerning the minority to which they belong or the regions in which they live, in a manner not incompatible with national legislation;

* have the right to establish and maintain their own associations; and,

* have the right to establish and maintain, without any discrimination, free and peaceful contacts with other members of their group and with persons belonging to other minorities, as well as contacts across frontiers with citizens of other states to whom they are related by national or ethnic, religious, or linguistic ties.


In the United Arab Emirates, men outnumber women by a ratio of 186 to 100.


The taller you are, the more money you make: researchers in England say that each additional 2.5 cm in height is associated with a 1.7% increase in income.


Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation--http://

Employment Equity Act-- E-5.401/

Minority Electronic Resources--http://www.arts. index.htm

TakingITGlobal--http:// home.html
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Title Annotation:Minorities--Background
Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Date:Oct 1, 2003
Previous Article:Notwithstanding: minorities in Canada can never feel completely, secure as long as the country's Constitution contains the "Notwithstanding Clause".
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