Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Culture: Canadian Tolerance of Intolerance

TORONTO, ONTARIO - One of the things that Canadians take great pride in is that they are more accepting of individual differences than their southern neighbors. For example, Canada legalized gay marriage on 20 July 2005 nationwide after most provinces had already taken that step, and hasn't looked back even under a Conservative government. At the height of war in the former Yugoslavia, Serbs and Croats living in Toronto have told me, there was minimal tension between sizable communities of each ethnicity here. As a Serb put it to me, "Over there, people are told to hate each other and they do. Here, people are expected to get along, and we do." However, there is a flip side to the Canadian tolerance--practices that would be illegal in the United States are effectively tolerated here. In a sense, there is a tolerance of intolerance.

When I first started looking to hire an employee here in Canada, I was ready to proceed the way I was used to going about such a process in the United States. In other words, I was going to set up a clear disposition of all résumés, make a spreadsheet to keep track of the declared race, gender, and other status of all applicants to be able to provide statistics if asked, and generally be very formal about the process. "We don't do that here," I was told by my bosses. Instead, "just look for the most qualified candidate and phone screen them"--they didn't want the records around of how the process had gone. "Just shred the résumés of candidates you aren't interested in." I doubt the process of the only hire I have made here would have come out any different no matter how I had proceeded--the clearly best candidate, found by a recruiter, happened to be someone we would call a minority female in the United States--but there is a reason that the US has such laws. If I had a prejudice, conscious or otherwise, there would be no record of this here, no way to demonstrate a pattern. Just because my workplace did appear to be following the conservative ideal of just looking for the most qualified candidates--and had a diverse work force to show for it--didn't mean that a company next door might not throw out all applications from, say, people with "too many vowels" in their names.

In the United States, bosses that engaged in overtly sexist behavior would have been sued for harassment or forced out by their employers over fears of a lawsuit by the time I entered the work force. While I have not personally observed any behavior here that would lead to dismissal in the US, I have definitely heard stories from people I have talked to here, both male and female, describing such behavior. The people in power involved might not be advancing their careers they way they might have generations ago, but they weren't losing their careers, either. They were being tolerated.

Practices that even a super-majority of Canadians say are repugnant, such as polygamy, are effectively sanctioned by Canadian tolerance. The settlement of Bountiful, British Columbia has become a magnet for polygamists from the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (Fundamentalist Mormons). Not only do polygamists live in that community, but people drive up from the United States to conduct polygamist marriage ceremonies there. Despite the publicity that the location has received, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have taken minimal action, all of it since 2005. The public outcry against the settlement just doesn't seem to be there; people are inclined to leave it alone unless there are specific allegations of abuse.

People have been surprised to hear me say that I would not recommend that women of my generation immigrate to Canada from the United States. It seems contrary to my general attitude about the two countries. However, as a white male, I am not directly affected by the potential impact of what would be considered outdated practices in the US that seem to take place here. As a landlord put it, "You didn't seem like much of an alien." Women could be affected.

However, just because the old dinosaurs and isolated practices are being tolerated in Canada now doesn't mean that they always will be. The Canadians of my generation that I speak to are at least as progressive in their perspective as their peers in the United States, if not more so. When Generation X and Generation Y enter more positions of leadership in Canada, boorish behavior and discrimination will not be tolerated whether there are explicit mechanisms in place to ensure that or not.

Change may be slower here, but things do move inexorably forward. In less than a generation, I expect I will be able to recommend to women that moving to Canada could be a wise decision. Right now, though, I can only recommend it to men.

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