The Unbearable Whiteness of Canadian Columnists
A grid of Canadian columnists

As the editorial pages editor at the Ottawa Citizen, Kate Heartfield oversaw 11 columnists until she resigned on November 18. Only one of those columnists isn’t white. The absence of opinion writers of colour means the paper may become a publication just for white people, admits Heartfield, who worries about the relevance of the conversation the Citizen is generating. “If you’re only publishing a certain selection of people, you’re not getting all the perspectives on any issue,” she says. “Canada is not that homogenous.”

This lack of diversity is not unique to the Citizen. Canadian columnists are predominately white, and this undermines the relevance of the conversation they help shape on a daily basis. But this problem cannot be solved overnight—and fixing it will require the support of those in power at newspapers.

People of colour make up only 3.4 percent of staff at Canadian newspapers, according to a 2004 study by Ryerson University professor emeritus John Miller, the most recent on the matter. This demographic makeup, which does not seem to have improved much since 2004, stands in stark contrast to the country’s population as a whole; visible minorities make up 19.1 percent of the population, according to the 2011 National Household Survey. Stats specifically examining the race makeup of Canadian columnists do not exist, but a scan through a staff list at any major Canadian newspaper suggests the opinion pages are even less diverse. A 2014 J-Source investigation also revealed that the median age of national columnists is 58.5 and 73 percent of the columnists surveyed were men. In other words, opinion writing in Canada is dominated by old white men.

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Shari Graydon, founder of Informed Opinions, a project for amplifying women’s voices in opinion journalism, says this disparity is troubling because it means the problems facing the most marginalized people in Canada aren’t getting enough attention, while other issues are over-emphasized. That means the proposed solutions for problems facing marginalized people lack the insight that those most affected can offer.

Editors and publishers don’t want their outlets to predominately serve white people. Regardless, the internal demographic at newspapers across Canada is out of skew with the national demographic. Something has gone wrong.

According to the Vancouver Sun website, all 17 columnists identify as white, though the editor-in-chief Harold Munro says two columnists of colour aren’t listed. Columns often go to seasoned reporters, who often hold onto them for years, and columnists typically pass down from one editor to the next, so new op-ed managers lack the autonomy to fundamentally reshape the demographic of their pages.

Newsroom hiring has also diminished over the last few years, intensifying the problem by giving editors less power to address the imbalance. The Canadian Media Guild estimates that over 10,000 jobs were lost between 2008 and 2013. Mary Elizabeth Luka, a Banting postdoctoral fellow at York University, says companies typically function on a “last in, first out” basis, so the young reporters, who are more likely to come from diverse backgrounds, are unlikely to survive recessions.

While Heartfield says the longevity of columnist positions contributes to the imbalance, she did most of her recruitment for potential columnists—who are all freelancers at the Citizen—from op-eds. This process avoids some of the pitfalls of picking columnists from an imbalanced pool of staffers, but structural issues still make it hard for more people of colour to get hired. The problem, she says, is that the overwhelming amount of content in the newspaper produced by white people leads others to feel unwelcome and believe that, “Clearly this editor only wants white people, because that’s all they publish, so why am I going to send my stuff to be rejected?” The vast majority of submissions Heartfield received came from middle-aged white men, hampering her ability to get to know writers from other backgrounds.

But Luka says there’s no excuse for the extent of demographic imbalance because editors can select the voices they showcase. “If 90 percent of the people they’re getting solicitations from are middle-class middle-aged white men, then they still have 10 percent, and there are still people they can go out to solicit.”

Heartfield also admits many editors suffer from subconscious racism, which leads them to contact the same few white men when someone is needed for comment on developing issues. Minelle Mahtani, a professor in human geography at the University of Toronto who has done extensive research into race and representation, says whiteness is often mistaken for expertise. This can exacerbate subconscious racism.

There are solutions to the demographic imbalance. Luka says publications could broaden internship opportunities to give people of colour an avenue into the industry. Editors can diversify their predominately white columnist roster by actively looking for talented writers in underrepresented communities. The Toronto Star recently added Desmond Cole as a weekly columnist, for example. Mahtani says this sort of concerted effort in hiring opinion writers is important because, “It’s a nebulous process at best, and one that is offered to individuals not necessarily based on merit, but networks.”

The idea of columnists being assigned due to connections instead of merit points to a bigger problem. Mahtani says the pattern of overwhelming whiteness among columnists will continue until shot-callers at newspapers diversify. Luka adds that a significant amount of research collected since the 1970s demonstrates the necessity of diversity among those with power in journalism. “If you don’t have a variety of people with a variety of perspectives in charge of decision-making, then you won’t get decisions made that represent a multiplicity of views.”

A drastic reshaping of the upper echelons of Canada’s white-owned media monopoly is unlikely, so a truly diverse columnist roster may seem unattainable. Still, editors should do all they can to improve Canadian journalism. So far, they haven’t made full use of their limited autonomy.

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19 comments
  1. Nice story on a vital topic.
    The story is wrong in one respect It says no numerical breakdown of columnists of colour exists. One was compiled in 2010 by researchers working for me at Ryerson and published in DiverseCity Counts (Maytree Foundation). We looked at all Toronto daily newspapers and came up with the following count (minorities in brackets): News columnists 84 (7); sports 44 (0); business 46 (1); Lifestyle 75 (1); and arts and entertainment 33 (1). Not very representative of Canada’s most diverse city, huh?

  2. The very title of this rant is RACIST. No wonder hate mongers and misandrists like Saachi Koul think they can spew their hate on national television when incubated by this faculty of race baiting. The facility of Journalism at Ryerson should be shut down.

    1. Saying “black” or “white” is not racism. Racism is a systemic structure of privilege based on historically established advantages based on race. Colourblindness, which is the ignoring and silencing of true material advantages and disparities based on race sustains racism.

    2. Saying “black” or “white” is not racism. Racism is a systemic structure of privilege based on historically established advantages based on race. Colourblindness, which is the ignoring and silencing of true material advantages and disparities based on race sustains racism. Read the comments for a reflection of the point the article author is making, mostly racism

      1. Did you come up with that on your own or is it some sort of a Brunswick Stew of half-baked utterances from second rate academics working at third rate institutions?

  3. Sports broadcasting is a microcosm of this. It is really jarring how white the Canadian landscape is. Naturally, hockey is shoved down our collective throats so these white males (mostly) can preserve their hegemony. The trouble with sports other than hockey, is that many of the participants are non-white and it is just plain wrong to have the perspective of middle-aged white men only.

    1. I went to Nigeria and it was really jarring how black it was. The country is just unbearably black, you know what I me, just like Canada is unbearably white. I watched a football match and all the players were black and the broadcasters too, just gross. Super problematic. Just like with hockey being so white, even though it is played mostly by Northern Europeans and North Americans it is just so white, why don’t they let some Asians in the league? Just unbearable. And I mean come on it’s 2017 now, so we should have POC play-by-play commentary. Just because Canada was 90% white 20 years ago, doesn’t mean all the hockey experts and people interested in hockey broadcasting are white, ewww. I watched a Raptors game the other day and white guy was talking, stop! No more white broadcasters doing Raptors games and more non-whites doing hockey now! We demand it because equality!

  4. Let’s see a similar analysis of Ryerson’s journalism school faculty. How many profs of colour did John Miller hire?

  5. First, let me apologize for being old and white – a heinous crime these days. As a newspaper editor and senior manager, I always tried to ensure our staff was diverse and reflective of society. Yes, we helped lead the way in changing the makeup of newsrooms in print to include as many people of various ethnic backgrounds and gender equality – in fact in Winnipeg we were leaders with one of the first transgendered editors in a newsroom. Yes, many newspaper columnists are white. Should they be tossed out based on colour?
    An important point is missed in that the landscape doesn’t just include newspapers as more people are writing opinion pieces for online agencies of various journalistic standards. It appears that TV, radio and online publications are well (or at least better) represented in prominent roles by journalists of many cultures. Perhaps you should include religion in this straw poll. Only you wouldn’t find out every detail about minorities as your assumptions are based on your picking white people by column mugs. For example, I am Jewish, although my name doesn’t sound like it. I would just get pegged as an old white man if I were still in the business full time.
    I hope schools such as Ryerson, which continue to churn out students for an ever decreasing number of centralized jobs will change their standards so that articles such as this will have a little more thought and perspective. A little context would be helpful in this whitewash.

  6. No mention of the Toronto Sun’s openly gay, married Jewish columnist? Really? Mr. Miller: Doesn’t strike me as a very thorough analysis of the make-up of Toronto columnists! Or was that done deliberatly to support your thesis?

  7. Further to Mark Bourrie’s point above, what is the breakdown of journalism students by sex and ethnicity at Ryerson and other major schools?

  8. This bemoans the lack of non-white people in journalism, but I suspect what it really bemoans is the lack of career minority activists. For example, would the author be happy with a Thomas Sowell, a man of “colour” who holds opinions further right than mine? I somehow doubt it. The article is itself a demonstration of the “white privilege” thesis…making the assumption that editorials by “people of colour” will be somehow steeped in leftwing critical theory and qualitatively change the narrative of the media. What if people of colour hold the same opinions as whites? Most of them do, y’know.

    I have to say that this attitude is what perpetuates the mythology of “whiteness” and “colour.” I have a feeling that if the professional agitators and their lilly white liberal cheerleaders would shut up about race, we’d all adopt the same outlook as young children…complete race blindness.

  9. Old white males.. hahaha.
    Well, lets think about that? For starters, who primarily goes into journalism? Until very recently, mostly males. And yes, they get older. Go figure. So that point is basically meaningless.
    Secondly to be a ‘person of colour’ as a journalist you have to actually go to journalism school for a start. How many ‘black’ journalism students are there? Not many.
    Yes, we hear all the usual nonsense but here are some actual facts. (which might actually matter if your trying to write a story about journalism)
    1) Blacks make up less than 1% of the population of Ontario.
    2) Blacks have a marginal rate of graduation from high school. Much less from higher education.
    Those are facts. Not guesses.
    Those ‘old white ‘ columnists are the people who earned it.
    If you want more black columnists you have to have more in school. FACT

  10. It is not enough to have token visible minority and racialized staff, there needs to a change is their location in positions at all levels of publication from writers to editors to owners. This is the means to having multiple perspectives reflected in news stories.

  11. Just for fun, I took a look at the Ryerson Review staff. Wow, are they white. Whiter than white. Shade-your-eyes-from-the-glare white.

    So to the writer of this piece, who is not white, my question is, which of your white colleagues should bow out? If they all apply for jobs, and those hired are in proportion to those applying, the dearth of non-white writers will continue.

    Another question. I’m not sure, but I assume working for the Review is by application. Shouldn’t the Review be selecting a more diverse staff, regardless of ability? Part of your argument is that the absence of non-white writers discourages others from entering the pool. So however few non-white journalism students are at Ryerson, shouldn’t they all be on the Review, to help create the circumstances to improve diversity in the future?

    I’m not challenging the value of a more diverse writing pool in Canadian journalism. But it’s a hard problem, and it’s not necessarily caused by racist incumbents. Educational achievement in elementary and high school is probably a better place to look.

  12. 29 % of all children in Toronto schools come from backgrounds of ‘mixed ancestry. That means that they have parents from different backgrounds. They are multi racial.
    This article is at least 20 years behind the times.
    Sad that the study of Journalism should be so shrouded in the past.
    Walk forward into the new world of the present , where people are truly diverse, and that diversity cannot be ‘seen’ by the human eye, but must be ‘seen’ by the human heart.
    Wow …. so past. So old.
    Time for a renewal of Ryerson.

  13. So you disparage racism by spewing racism huh? And worse – fail to see your hypocrisy!

    Start your own papers!! In a Capitalist Democracy, THAT, is the correct answer. If there’s so much demand for minority views, and so much demand by minority writers for a place, the two should be able to hook up! But WAIT – there already is tons of minority papers in the GTA and across Canada. And blogs, and youtube channels etc. It’s never been easier to get started. So stop whining and get started!! And if you’re good, you’ll get picked up by the masses!

    My above paragraph notwithstanding, I’ve only ever heard 2 opinions in all my life – Lefty’s, and Righty’s. And know what? Regardless of colour, the Lefty’s sound like Lefty’s, and the Righty’s sound like Righty’s. This whole issue is an Abstract Construct that leads nowhere but to hatred and divisiveness. Oh, and btw – since these are all a bunch of hard line Lefty’s – why don’t they simply MOVE?!?! Yeah, you heard me. Lefty’s don’t believe in borders, and the papers in predominantly black countries are – well – predominantly Black. So GO!! You don’t believe in borders – remember? So GO!!

  14. Disgusting racism. Let’s have racial and religious quotas in every aspect of life. To hell with talent, energy or inclination.

    This absurd article would have gone down well in Der Sturmer.

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