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Inclusion, Exclusion, and Belonging

Introduction by: Arjun Tremblay

What does “inclusion, exclusion, and belonging” mean? Why are these matters important to the study of Canadian Political Science?

Addressing this topic requires that we acknowledge three key features of the societies that we live in:

  • First, these societies are deeply diverse, meaning that they are composed of individuals, as well as the groups and communities that these individuals belong to.
  • Second, these societies comprise both a majority group/community as well as one or several minority groups/communities.
  • Third, and following from the previous point, there is in any deeply diverse society an imbalance in power between the majority and minorities. This means, more precisely, that members of the majority tend to have an entitlement and, perhaps even, privileged access to social, political, and economic power. It also means that members of minority groups and minority communities face significant barriers to full participation in society.

Set within this context, the three key concepts addressed in this topicinclusion, exclusion, and belonging–hold specific meanings.

Inclusion is a process that has institutional and symbolic forms. Institutional inclusion involves lowering or eliminating the barriers that members of minority groups/communities face. By contrast, symbolic inclusion seeks to bridge the gap between majorities and minorities through the explicit and formal recognition of a society’s diversity, but stops short of any institutional change.

Exclusion also comes in different forms: active and passive. Active exclusion refers to the actions taken by the majority group or community to prevent members of minority groups and communities from accessing social, political, or economic power. Passive exclusion refers to inaction by members of the majority group that indirectly reinforces the status quo as well as imbalances in power between groups and communities. Passive exclusion can be far more subtle than active exclusion, and includes things like the failure to call out discriminatory practices, the tacit acceptance of someone’s authority simply due to their membership in the majority group, and, conversely, hesitancy in respecting the authority a person holds by virtue of their office because that person is a member of a minority group.

Belonging as a term is frequently used to express the human desire for acceptance and recognition by others. Belonging has several dimensions. Here belonging refers both to a collective identity that overlaps with a political identity (like a country or nationality) and to a sense of inclusion (and not exclusion) within that identity. Active and passive exclusion view full membership (i.e., fair access to social, political, and economic power) in the community as an exclusive right of the majority, wherein minorities do not belong. Institutional and symbolic inclusion, by contrast, aims to expand the scope of full membership in the community and to promote mutual recognition and acceptance between majority and minority groups.

The topic of inclusion, exclusion, and belonging is important in the study of politics both in Canada and elsewhere for a number of reasons. For one, this topic reminds us that we have yet to achieve a fully inclusionary ideal of belonging and to fully realize fairness, justice, and equality. This means that there is still much work hat remains to be done by students of politics even in places with longstanding inclusionary practices and institutions. Additionally, and equally important, we now find ourselves at a moment in time when exclusionary politics and restrictive notions of belonging have returned to the political mainstream under the banner of nativist and populist movements. Much of the progress made towards inclusion during the latter half of the 20th century and the early 21st century now hangs in the balance. What may the future hold for inclusionary politics? Under what conditions are exclusionary politics likely to take root? Can we achieve a fully inclusionary sense of belonging? What might this require ? These are questions that political scientists are uniquely equipped to answer. 

How are inclusion, exclusion, and belonging usually taught?

To be clear: while political scientists may have the answers to these questions, inclusion, exclusion, and belonging has for the longest time been treated as either a discrete topic in political science courses or as an addendum to scholarly and administrative discussions at Canadian universities. That being said, the topic has factored into some Canadian political science courses as more than just an afterthought. For example, courses on federalism offered at Canadian universities sometimes introduce students to notions of dualist, pluralist, multinational, and multi-ethnic federalism and, simultaneously, to the rationales for the division of powers that acknowledge constituent diversity and the co-existence of multiple demoi (or peoples) within the same federal polity. Additionally, courses offered in Canadian political science programs have sometimes woven inclusion, exclusion, and belonging into the classroom through the intermediary of a discussion on normative approaches to multiculturalism. In so doing, these courses introduce students to the contributions made by scholars–many of whom are Canadian–to theorizing and prescribing inclusive notions of belonging and to designing institutional remedies for imbalances in power between majority and minority cultural groups.

How is this area changing?

More recently, Canadian universities have started to address issues of inclusion, exclusion and belonging in their strategic planning under the ambit of EDI (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) mandates. There have also been changes to pedagogy in recent years which have resulted in the centering of discussions on historical exclusions and on the need to reconceptualize notions of inclusion and belonging. One of the most important changes has been the incorporation of reconciliation syllabi and teaching materials in political science courses and the development and proliferation of courses on Indigenous politics and Indigenous governance across Canadian political science departments. Another key change has been the inclusion of discussions on race and racialized identities in courses that address Canadian diversity. Both recent changes have been essential in bringing to light the limitations of longstanding inclusionary practices and institutions in Canada such as the country’s national-level policy of official multiculturalism. They have also brought into question the widespread pedagogical belief in ‘Canadian exceptionalism’ which holds that Canada has been comparatively far more successful than other countries in providing rapid and successful minority access to social, economic, and political power. As critics have pointed out, this ‘exceptional’ trait may only be applicable to polyethnic minority groups (i.e., minorities borne out of immigration) and it may actually be attributable more to Canada’s restrictive and selective immigration policy rather than to a genuine commitment to inclusionary belonging.       

Opportunities for further change?

Where do we go from here? Recent pedagogical and institutional changes are certainly a move in the right direction but, lest we repeat the mistakes of the past, they should not be taken as an indication that we are at the conclusion of our examination of inclusion, exclusion, and belonging. In fact, we are just beginning to really plumb the depths of such complex and interrelated issues in Canada and in Canadian political science. For example, discussions on systemic racism in Canada have raised awareness that redressing imbalances in power between the majority and minorities is very likely going to require solutions that go beyond symbolic and institutional inclusion. In bringing to light the deleterious effects of state citizenship on Indigenous notions of belonging, reconciliation syllabi have, for their part, revealed an implicit bias in Canadian political science for promoting inclusion solely through state institutions. This raises the question as to whether the state is also deleterious for polyethnic and national minorities and how understandings of fairness, justice, and equality can be revised to develop ideals of inclusionary belonging that operate both within and without the state. There is also an important emerging discussion on ‘minorities-within-minorities’ in Canadian and comparative scholarship. This discussion points to other blind-spots in the way Canadians have previously examined inclusion, exclusion, and belonging.  Most notably, it shows us that Canadian political science has long overlooked religion as an important identity marker and that it has had very little to say thus far about the exclusion of linguistic minorities distributed throughout the country.

As a concluding note, it is important to recognize that opportunities for future change in the study of inclusion, exclusion, and belong are emerging and developing against the backdrop of an overarching postcolonial critique of political science. This critique not only exposes the Eurocentric biases of the discipline, but also encourages a re-examination of top-down methods of concept building. What this means is that we must be more conscious of how we define concepts such as inclusion, exclusion, and belonging in the first place and that we must also accept that these concepts are and should be open for continued contestation.