Transcript – Episode 51: A chat with Deputy Minister Daniel Quan-Watson on anti-Asian racism.
Welcome to the GAC Files, a podcast about the people, issues and ideas driving Global Affairs Canada.
And now introducing your host, Global Affairs Canada's Deputy Minister of International Trade, John Hannaford.
John Hannaford: Hello everyone. It's a pleasure to have another conversation in the context of GAC's files. Today, we have a colleague for a rather important discussion, I would say.
I'm really thrilled to have my colleague, Daniel Quan-Watson, agree to chat with us today. Daniel, as many of you will know, is the deputy minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada and is a longstanding member of the public service and a person with the real depth of experience in issues pertaining to our relations with Indigenous Canadians and also with issues pertaining to, sort of, Canada's place in the world. And we'll come back to that in—over the course of the conversation.
Daniel, about, well, several months ago now, made a public contribution to our discussions in Canada around issues of race, and that took the form of a letter in response to some comments that had been made by a public commentator—where Daniel shared his own experiences, as somebody who is a Canadian of both Asian and European descent—in issues of race, and some of the experiences that he has had as an individual. And Daniel, first of all, thank you very much for participating in this conversation, and thank you for the part you've played in our public discourse on this because I really think it's so important that we have this discussion and we have it in an informed way. And I think your letter and your participation here today really contribute to that. So, I guess I just wanted, apart from thanking you for participating, I just wanted to get your, kind of, your thoughts as to where we are in Canada on issues of race, particularly when it comes to Asian Canadians and the sort of experience that we have of anti-Asian racism, which has obviously been in the news and a number of forums in the last period of time.
Daniel Quan-Watson: Well, number 1, thank you very much for the invitation; it's a great pleasure to be here to talk with you and to talk with all your colleagues within the department. And especially on this topic, which is a very important issue for all sorts of reasons in Canada.
I think, you know, it's interesting if you look back at the history of Canada as we understand it—since 1867—and, of course, in the particular world I work in, we think of a lot of the steps long before 1867 that led to our history. But if we think of that part from 1867 on, Asian people in what is now Canada and Asian Canadians are a really important part of our history. And understanding what that has been and what it has led to and how it has evolved over time, I think is a really important part of understanding who we are as Canadians. And so, for example, we all know the stories in the gold rush period; and then, later, at the building of the railroad, large numbers of Chinese people coming to Canada, settling here as time went on—a number of laws put in place that barred Asian Canadians from access to living in certain parts of cities, to professions, to being born in hospitals in a number of cases, to be buried in the same cemeteries. And over time, a number of those things changed. And 1 of the things that I find fascinating is that it'll be 100 years ago next year that my grandfather, Donald Quan, arrived to Canada in 1912. And I have a copy of his head tax certificate, signed by someone who would have been a colleague of ours on this podcast, who was a federal public servant, whose title was Controller of Chinese Immigration. And what's fascinating to me is he couldn't bring my grandmother over, or my biological father, to Canada because of the Exclusion Act that came into force a couple of months after he arrived in Victoria in 1923.
But what's interesting too, is that I became the first ever federal deputy minister of Chinese Canadian ancestry. As you well know, those appointments are done on the advice of the prime minister. The prime minister of Canada signed that recommendation a couple hundred metres away from the chamber of the House of Commons that passed and later repealed the Exclusion Act. And it says something about the voyage that we have taken, and it has been a long voyage; it has gone a great distance and the story has changed immensely, but it hasn't changed completely. And I think that 1 of the things that we have seen in the last year and a half is a resurgence of many of the sentiments that aren't always that far below the surface of racism in Canada.
And I wrote that letter because the columnists had written—and basically dismissing the concept that there was still any racism in Canada; and I thought, I'm not going to argue, but I will express what my reality has been in my life. And I listed off a subset of some of the things that I'd gone through in my lifetime. And as I note in the letter, it was the first time I'd ever, sort of, done some serious maths on it—figured it was at least 10,000 times. In fact, I'm pretty—I'm quite certain—that it's much higher than that, but that was kind of the minimum number that I knew for sure. There was no way I could be very far off that particular number. And so in the letter, I went through, sort of, a number of, sort of, individual experiences—some quite banal, some quite spectacular—but all centred around the same theme.
And I think these are things that are way too invisible, to way too many Canadians. And sadly, way too familiar to another set of Canadians, and I think the challenge is to break down the too- "familiarness" on the one hand and the too-invisible on the other hand as parts of those conversations.
John Hannaford: Yeah, as I said at the outset, I think you being prepared to share your experience is obviously critical to that kind of dialogue that we collectively need to be having—our conversation that we collectively need to be having—around issues of race. You've talked about, sort of, the specific history that, you know—progress that we've made in some areas, but in this podcast, we've talked about race in a few different contexts. I'm, kind of, interested, you know, the experience of Asian Canadians is obviously different than other discriminated-against communities. There are obviously some commonalities there as well. And I just, the specific situation of Asian Canadians, based on your own experience, how does this play itself out, and are there particular things that we should be sensitive about as we have this conversation; in particular, parts of the history and aspects of the experience of racism?
Daniel Quan-Watson: And indeed, it's a very good question. We are in the process, for the first time ever within the public service, of finding differentiated data between groups. Because what's clear is that the progress of African Canadian public servants in executive positions, in deputy minister positions, in positions for many types of professions, has not been what it is in the proportion of the population. When you look at many of the professions where we see Chinese Canadians, Indian Canadians and other Asians, we see that the proportion is often very high. But when you go outside certain fields, you realize that this presence is not equivalent everywhere; far too often, it is very concentrated.
What is also interesting in Canada, is the fact that there are people who have been here for 140 years, 150 years—the descendants of those who came to build the railroad and during the decades that followed. And there is also a much more recent migration. So, for example, when I was in college, it was extremely rare to see students from China. Today, we see tens of thousands of students who come from China and who very often settle in Canada afterward. And that kind of immigration and that experience is very different. And so to view it in the context—for example, the comparison of university degrees, doctorates, master's degrees, bachelor's degrees in institutions outside of Canada versus what is inside of Canada. And very often on bases that are quite difficult to explain sometimes.
I was CHRO [chief human resources officer] when we were having the question and it was kind of interesting. Somebody had gone to Harvard and was asked to explain the equivalence of their degree to a Canadian degree, and a lot of people found that really ridiculous. But 1 of the questions was, okay, so then, what is the basis of not asking that question about Harvard versus asking the question about any number of other places in China, in India; in any number of other countries, in Japan, for that matter, in Germany? And it was interesting because the answer that most typically came back is, "Well, we just know." And what's interesting about that is, okay, well, if we just know, it's probably because we have some sense that we think we understand those places. Maybe we know people who went there, but isn't it equivalent to what is going on in other places? Why don't we just know? And when you think of the impact that it has on a person to not have their credentials recognized and to understand that, well, we're recognizing other credentials from outside of Canada at the drop of a hat—in fact, you know, there may be a certain view that if you go to certain institutions in the UK or the US, well, maybe that's even better than the University of Saskatchewan, I don't know. But do we have the same sense that that could possibly be true in Japan, in China, in India, in any number of other places? And just statistically, it has to be true that there are enormous equivalencies between those institutions and our own. But if we don't know that, if we haven't thought about that, it's an interesting thing about why we automatically say, well, I'm not going to bother checking equivalency with Harvard or Oxford; but the second that you go to the best university there is in Japan, the best university there is in China, at the best university there is in India, it might as well be Selkirk College—and we'll check through and we'll see if you're anywhere near—and we lose an awful lot because of that. The individuals lose an awful lot. But we as a public service in an institution lose enormous amounts of time and effort because we haven't actually thought that through. And, you know, we can't afford to lose these people. We can't afford to lose those skills.
John Hannaford: Yeah, it's just dead right. You see, you've sort of broached the topic of our place in the world and how we kind of fit our own policy agendas and our implicit biases into our interactions with that broader world. I was struck when I was reading your letter about some of the experiences that you had in international settings. And it's particularly relevant, obviously, for the audience of this podcast, when we think about how we represent ourselves abroad; the context in which we operate. And, you know, you've had an awful lot of experience representing Canada in a variety of different settings. And you noted 1 story with respect to the UN, but also a series of issues around the border. I'm Interested as to, you know, observations you would have that would be particularly relevant to GAC [Global Affairs Canada] employees as we think about how we serve our functions both here and abroad and the—sort of—how we make decisions as to, you know, how we represent ourselves abroad.
Daniel Quan-Watson: Yeah, I think that is a great question. I think I've spent a lot of my career as, you know, either the only person or one of the only people who looks like me or who looks different than the rest of the people in the room. And when that happens, you become aware of it. So, I remember when I was on the Advanced Leadership Program, and we're going around as a group of federal assistant deputy ministers, virtually every single one of us; and the number of times I got stopped when I was with the group in Canadian missions abroad—and said, "Oh, this is only for Canadians," or, "No, this is only for the group of leaders." And you know, it didn't happen a couple of times, it happened an awful lot of times. And I think that, you know, the other thing that I noted when I was in a lot of those rooms—and this isn't unique to GAC—but I always found it really interesting because I did spend a lot of time dealing on the elimination of racial discrimination and some different visas; the number of people who looked anything like me in any of those meetings, in any of those delegations, was usually about zero. And I would often think, you know, when I would get the surprise looks that I would get from other delegations—"Oh, you're, wait a minute, you're with the Canadian delegation?" They would be a little surprised. And the question for me—this isn't about the quality of the individuals who are there—they're great people. I have nothing but fantastic things to say about each and every one of the missions I've ever been to, been brilliantly supported by them; can't believe the conditions they often work under, can't believe some of the people they have to put up with who, you know—often Canadians who are down there expecting things of our missions that, frankly, they probably ought not to be expecting. But with a smile and great grace, people continue to deliver those things. But would these other people know if they hadn't been to Canada by looking at us, what we look like at home. What does it take so that it's not a surprise that I'm a Canadian? What would it take that it's not a surprise that, in fact, I'm a Canadian deputy minister? One of the things that I, sort of, said to, in my letter was this point. Somebody asked me—who was in fact an immigrant to Canada here on a student visa—had asked me the question, "Well, what do you do for a living?" And I said, "I work for the government of Canada." And she just laughed, just laughed out and said, "Well, how can you work for—you're not even a real Canadian." And it's an interesting thing to me about when we show ourselves to the world, do we show what we are like at home or do we have a presence there that says all of the right things? And I'll be clear too: our actions, I think are very loud and very strong and often very courageous; and I salute the people to do that. But there is something about the difference between doing and saying, and that's something that I think that we need to continue to work with. GAC is not the only place in the government of Canada that needs to think about that and think of the impact. We have plenty of other institutions—including the one for which I'm a deputy minister—where far too few Indigenous people are in the roles that we need to have them in. And that impact of that in terms of other people deciding whether or not they think there's really a place for them in Canada's public service is influenced heavily by who is there and maybe, more importantly, by who is not? And so, that would be, I think, the perspective that I would have on this; nothing but enormous respect, for the employees who have supported, who are there and who are delivering messages and who are developing messages, but there is an important aspect to the face—and I use the word on purpose—that Canada is showing to the rest of the world.
John Hannaford: Absolutely, that's absolutely correct. Maybe we can discuss a bit about your experience as a deputy minister and the policies that are more helpful in dealing with this type of problem, this type of racism, issues of representation, of recruitment.
In your experience, what has worked particularly well, because you were saying we have made some progress here, and what's been the, kind of, basis for that? And what more can we be doing within the public service generally?
Daniel Quan-Watson: No, that's a very good question. I think that, number 1, you have to recognize that we've already made some extraordinarily important changes. I started my federal career 32 years ago, in 1989, and at that time, about 7 or 8 per cent of EXs in the public service were women, and that was very rare. And people were asking the question, "Is this really possible?" It was like a social experiment that we were doing to see if it could work. I remember, early in my career, I was looking for a position, and I was offered it, and one of the old gentlemen who was very close to retirement in 1989—so he probably started in 1955, or something like that—said to me, "Daniel, be careful. Your manager is going to be a woman, and that can't help your career." And I don't know exactly what he imagined the problem was, but it was normal. It was something we heard a lot. Now today, if I asked any public servant who has been here for 10 years, say, how many managers, how many directors have you had who are women? Number 1, they would be insulted that I would ask that question. They would find it absolutely ridiculous and offensive that I would ask that question. But the other thing, people should be thinking that's good, I never even thought about that; I have my male directors, my female directors, I've never counted. We know how to make that degree of change. But we have to ask the question today within our organizations. If we employed an African Canadian, a Chinese Canadian, an Indian Canadian, an Aboriginal person, would this be the first time in the history of this organization that such a person would be filling this position?
And you know, you think about this, we watch the Jackie Robinson story, 1947, and the breaking of the colour barrier in Major League Baseball. We broke that barrier in 2020 in the Canadian federal public service deputy minister community for Black deputy ministers. We broke it in 2009 with Chinese Canadian deputy ministers, you know, 60 years after the NHL, Major League Baseball and all these other entities did this. And so, what we've had so far, in my experience, is some areas where we have made some significant strides. We have actually developed people, we've had programs, but, by and large, we haven't done it on an industrial scale. And what I mean by that is we've had sort of a craftsperson approaching it. We find individuals, we support them, we mentor them to guide them and many of those people have done very well. But we need to actually get to a point where it becomes normal that people appear in different positions in the proportion that they exist in the population. And so, it's not a first to be Yazmine Laroche and to be the deputy minister with the visible disability, who is the first one—and these are her words, not mine. That Gina Wilson is not the first Indigenous person to be a deputy minister. That I'm not the first Chinese Canadian deputy minister. That Caroline Xavier isn't the first Black. We're in the world of firsts. All of those firsts are still currently employed in the federal public service. So, I ask people to do 3 questions. Number 1, where has our service to Canada and Canadians not bring [been] as strong as it should, not been as good as it should because of who we chose not to bring to the table? Number 2, who are we consistently not attracting and not retaining and why? And number 3 is, what is it that is going on inside our organizations that makes it difficult or impossible for those people that we should be recruiting to join, to stay or to encourage others to do the same. And I think if we say, well, you know, my work is just fine, it doesn't make any difference who I do or don't have at the table; I think, if we say, well, I'm not sure who isn't here or why they're not here, but it's not really a problem; and I think is—well, maybe stuff's going on in my organization, but I don't know about it, I can't see it, and so as far as I'm concerned, it's not really an issue—we're never going to get anywhere on these fronts. But that has some consequences for us as institutions.
Our first duty is to know what the issues are that we are facing on behalf of Canada and Canadians. And without having people who can tell us: here are the issues. Here are the nuances that you've missed. Here's what we should be focusing on. The wrong questions will be answered, number 1. Number 2: decision making separate from the analysis of problems. If we don't have people who have these connections to all of these realities, all of these nuances, all of these elements of our society that we don't see in our teams. Without these people, we'll make decisions that are worse than others.
And then the final step is that if you don't have—when you're delivering, and at the end of the day, government is the business of delivering, making things different in practical ways for Canada, Canadians and those that we serve—if we don't have the connections to understand where we're missing the mark, how we're missing the mark, why we're missing the mark or why we're doing well, for that matter, again, we do worse delivery than we otherwise will. And so to me, I think we have to have that conversation. For a long time, we've treated diversity as though the system's just fine, thank you very much. It's doing very well, but it is unfortunate that we've left some other folks by the wayside. So as a charitable act, you know, next time the bus comes around, we'll sort of let people on the bus and they can do the same, right. What I'm saying and I think—what I put into my executives' performance requirements and agreements for this year—they had to answer those 3 questions. And I think it's critically important because if we think that we haven't missed anything because of who we haven't had at the table, I think that's 1 of the most dangerous things we could do. I'll give you 1 quick example. I ran a panel where I had 3 seasoned executives come and answer the first question of that, which is where had they underserved Canada and Canadians because of who they hadn't had at the table? And an item that was completely obvious to me, the second that it was said, came up; this woman who was on the panel said the way we deal with family. And I was a little intrigued, first. And she said, you know, our collective agreements are structured to find part-time work abhorrent. And, you know, often the unions have argued, well, [the] employer wants part-time work just because they're trying to cut wages and benefits, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And an employer says, you know—the employers often said it's too complicated, it's too difficult, why do I want to have all that headache? But as this person pointed out in dealing with family, it is a raw fact that women have been forced to deal with a different set of family responsibilities at different points in time in their career than men do, en masse, and that the only way that those women can effectively manage the different responsibilities is to have, at least as an option, to consider the possibility of part-time work. And what she said is: if at the very outset we've had the right women in the right places on the bargaining agent side and the right women in the right places on the employer side, we would not have treated part-time workers as though they were a communicable disease. We would have treated it as something that was simply a necessary reality that allowed us to bring people into the labour force that we otherwise were excluding; or alternately, we weren't getting nearly as much out of them as we could while they were here because they were forced to deal with other challenges outset. To me, that's a perfect example of how the way that we see the world is shaped by whose eyes we see it through and whose voices we listen to, or don't listen to, while we're dealing with it. So to me, those are some of the things that I think we need to deal with in our institutions to focus on what these questions are and what are we losing because of what we haven't done.
John Hannaford: Well, look, Daniel, thank you very much. I thank you on a number of levels; first of all, thank you for your leadership on this set of issues in Canada and the public service. I think it's, as I said at the outset, I think really is critically important. And I think you've contributed to a much more informed discussion around issues of anti-Asian racism in our society. And I want to thank you for those concluding remarks because I think bringing this down to a very practical level, as to what the cost is of the status quo, I think is critically important too because these can be very abstract discussions in some ways—and I think your letter concretized your experience. And I think those questions force us as leaders to think through, you know, what the implications are of maintaining a situation that needs to change. So, thank you very, very much. It's a pleasure to get a chance to explore these issues with you, and we'll talk again soon.
Daniel Quan-Watson: It was a great pleasure. And until next time.
John Hannaford: Until next time.
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