Social Class and Inequality Social inequality has been defined as a conflicting status within a society with regards to the individual, property rights, and access to education, medical care, and welfare programs. Much of society’s inequality can be attributed to the class status of a particular group, which has usually been largely determined by the group’s ethnicity or race (Macionis & Gerber, 2006). The conflict perspective is an attempt to understand the group conflict that occurs by the protection of one’s status at the expense of the other.
One group will resort to various means to preserve a ideal social status through socioeconomic prestige, consolidation of power (political and financial), and control of resources. In Canada, even though its impact is frequently minimized, social inequality exists, but because the majority of citizens associate exclusively with members of their own class, they are often unaware of the significant role social inequality continues to play (Macionis & Gerber, 2006). An inadequate distribution of wealth remains “an important component” of Canada’s social inequities (Macionis & Gerber, 2006).
Wealth can be defined as the amount of money or material items that an individual, family, or group controls and ultimately determines the status of a particular class (Macionis & Gerber, 2006). Canada’s social classes can be divided into four, and the wealth is not distributed equally between them. First, there is the predominantly Anglo upper class, in which most of the wealth has been inherited; and they comprise of approximately 3-to-5 percent of the Canadian population (Macionis & Gerber, 2006).
Finally, there is the lower class, which is represented by about 20 percent of the population (Macionis & Gerber, 2006). Among these are the so-called working poor whose incomes alone are not sufficient enough for adequate food or shelter (Macionis & Gerber, 2006). Their living conditions are often separated from the mainstream society in concentrated ethnic or racial communities (Macionis & Gerber, 2006). The most impoverished members of this class are unable to generate any income and are completely reliant upon government welfare programs.
One of the primary deciding factors as to what determines wealth, power, and social status is occupational prestige (Macionis & Gerber, 2006). For example, in Canada, physicians and lawyers continue to reside at the top of the social ladder while newspaper delivery persons or hospitality staff rank at the bottom (Macionis & Gerber, 2006). The growing disparity in income is beginning to resemble that of the United States with approximately 43. percent of the Canadian income being concentrated within the top 20 percent of social spectrum while those in the bottom 20 percent are receiving a mere 5. 2 percent of that income (Macionis & Gerber, 2006). Nearly 16 percent of Canadians were categorized as being “below the poverty line” in the mid-1990s, and every month, close to a million people rely upon food banks to feed their families (Macionis & Gerber, 2006). The income a particular class earns is determined in large part to the amount of education received, and yet in order to receive a higher education money is required.
There is also a strong correlation between income and healthcare. The higher the income, the greater the number of quality medical services there are available (Macionis & Gerber, 2006). The wealthy or upper middle classes can afford specialized care that isn’t typically covered by a provinces general health care plan, thus widening the gap of equality between the social classes. Within the boundary of the Canadian border we can see the separation between ethnicity, and wealth which determines class.
Studies show that predominately the British and French Canadians earn the highest levels of income whereas the Africans, certain Asian groups, Latin Americans, and Aboriginals consistently rank near the bottom (Macionis & Gerber, 2006). In recent years, there has been an increase in income inequality with the 14 percent of impoverished Canadians in the lower social classes of families headed by single mothers, female senior citizens, indigenous peoples, and the recent influx of immigrants (Reutter, Veenstra, Stewart, Raphael, Love, Makwarimba, and McMurray, 2006).
Because of social exclusion, poverty is perpetuated with certain groups consistently shut out of the opportunities that might better equalize the social scales (Reutter et al, 2006). Canadian sociologist John Porter’s focused nearly entirely on power and class, his breakthrough research was published as The Vertical Mosaic: An Analysis of Social Class and Power in Canada in 1965 (Driedger, 2001).
Porter explored the impact of race and ethnicity upon social mobility and noted that Canadian social history has been determined by ‘charter groups,’ mainly the English and the French situated in Ontario and Quebec, while the English were widely dispersed in both rural and urban locales, becoming increasingly urbanized as a result of industrialization and the fortunes being made, the Quebecois group was nearly exclusively rural in geography and philosophy (Driedger, 2001).
Power examined how power relationships developed along social class lines and how the conflict among these charter groups influenced differences in social classes (Driedger, 2001). According to Hier & Walby (2006), Porter presented the argument that “an ‘entrance status’ is assigned to less preferred immigrant groups (particularly southern and eastern Europeans… that restricts collective gains in education, income, and membership among Canada’s elite” (p. 83). This entrance status was, in Porter’s view, strong enough to create a social barrier not unlike India’s caste system (Hier ; Walby, 2006).
A decade later, Porter drew similar conclusions when he noted that his Canadian census job stratification study revealed, “Ethnicity serves as a deterrent to social mobility” (as cited in Driedger, 2001, p. 421). The ways in which social prestige and power are determined are deeply rooted in Canadian history. For instance, 1867’s British North America Act gave the British and the French the distinction of being a charter group that entitled them to a power, prestige (and of course wealth) that other groups were automatically denied unless they displayed a similar pedigree Driedger, 2001). The charter languages and cultures, though separate, would afford these members with exclusive privileges (Driedger, 2001). They would have automatic access to society, while other groups would have to battle for entrance and to secure status. Therefore, while a few managed to break through, most ethnic groups were consistently refused entrance. For this reason, they were forced to take jobs of low class status and their degree of assimilation into Canadian society would be determined by the charter members (Driedger, 2001).
There is a sharp distinction between industry and finance in terms of ownership of financial resources. The bankers exert the most social control, and because they have been historically more interested in protecting their own interests, the indigenous industrialized groups have been discouraged (Panitch, 1985). Southern Ontario remains the wealthy hub of the Canada’s industrial sector, while the indigenous groups and other lower classes remain both regionally and socially isolated (Panitch, 1985).
Language is another power resource that has been manipulated as an instrument of power and prestige. While the French have long been a charter of Canadian society, as in the United States, being culturally separate has not meant equality in terms of class status. In the years following World War II, the French Canadians of Quebec have sought greater independence (Driedger, 2001). Their discontent resulted in the establishment of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in 1963, which emphasized the notion of an “equal partnership” (Driedger, 2001, p. 21). Even though charter dualism is not articulated in the Canadian constitution, the Quebec provincials believed that their one-third French-speaking status along with the growing number of languages spoken by non-charter members warranted a reclassification to at the very least bilingualism and at the most, an acknowledgement of multiculturalism that would remove existing cultural barriers and provide greater social access. These efforts have thus fall fallen short, and therefore Quebec annexation may one day become a reality.
Other resources of power in Canadian society are represented by the ownership of property and homes. In Canada as in most parts of North America, homes represent wealth because of the “forced savings, investment appreciation, and protection against inflation” it represents (Gyimah, Walters, ; Phythian, 2005, p. 338). Owning a home offers “a sense of belonging” or inclusion for immigrant classes that is unlike anything else (Gyimah, Walters, ; Phythian, 2005, p. 338).
But not surprisingly, Gyimah et al (2005) have discovered, “Rates of ownership have been found to vary considerably by ethnicity and immigration status” (p. 338). There is, interestingly, a structure among immigrant classes that impacts on the access to these resources with the immigrants who settled in Canada earlier enjoying much higher rates of home ownership than new immigrant arrivals (Gyimah et al, 2005). The lone exception is the Hong Kong business entrepreneurs that relocated to Canada when the Chinese regained control of the area (Gyimah et al, 2005).
They had accumulated enough wealth in Hong Kong to bypass traditional barriers and secure housing usually reserved for charter members. On the opposite end of the spectrum, home ownership rates are lowest among the Blacks and Aboriginal classes (Gyimah et al, 2005). According to a study Henry, Tator, Mattis, and Rees conducted in 2002, “In spite of the historical and contemporary evidence of racism as a pervasive and intractable reality in Canada … itizens and institutions function in a state of collective denial” (as cited in Hier ; Walby, 2006, p. 83). Throughout the history of Canada, “institutionalized racism” has been a part of the cultural landscape dating back to the indentured servants and slave labor of the African and Caribbean peoples that first arrived in the seventeenth century, and continued to be oppressed for the next 200 years in the Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Quebec provinces (Hier ; Walby, 2006).
The fur trade justified this enslavement and the Federal Indian Act revisions of the mid-twentieth century continued to treat certain races in a subordinate manner (Hier ; Walby, 2006). Those deemed more primitive were oppressed because of social perceptions of their “savagery, inferiority, and cultural weakness” (Hier ; Walby, 2006, p. 83). Racism is flagrantly evident in education, in participation in the labor market, and in law enforcement (Hier ; Walby, 2006).
When Ruck and Wortley studied the perceptions of high school students regarding school discipline through a questionnaire issued to nearly 2,000 Toronto students in grades 10 through 12, the ethnic groupings of Black/African, Asian/South Asian, White European, and Other revealed that their perceptions of discipline discrimination were significantly higher than those students of White European backgrounds (Hier ; Walby, 2006). Therefore, not surprisingly, these students were more likely to drop out of school and be denied any hope of receiving a well-paying job.
Lower social classes were also relegated to low-paying jobs because of purportedly lacking “‘Canadian’ work experience” and a lack of English language comprehension (Hier ; Walby, 2006, p. 83). In a 2001 study by Austin and Este, the immigrant males they interviewed reported that because the power and resources are so tightly controlled by the White Canadian majority, their foreign employment experiences were minimized and they were blocked from taking the training programs that would have improved their language proficiency (Hier ; Walby, 2006).
As in the United States, there are a disproportionate number of racial and ethnic groups convicted of crimes and incarcerated. This is believed to be due to racial profiling in law enforcement that tips the scales of justice away from people of color. According to a Royal Commission survey, the majority of respondents believe police are prejudiced against Black Canadians (Hier ; Walby, 2006). Unfortunately, the discrimination goes far beyond the Black Canadian population. The Aboriginal population provides a contemporary case study that reflects the impact of racism upon social inequality of Canada.
The 2001 Canadian census lists a total of 976,310 Aboriginal peoples throughout the territories and provinces (Adelson, 2005). Of those, more than 600,000 are Native Americans – referred to as First Nations – and live mostly in the provinces of Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan (Adelson, 2005). The Metis group live in the western sections of these provinces and total around 292,000 (Adelson, 2005). The Inuit comprise 45,000 members and are concentrated in the northern portions of Canada, living almost exclusively in Nunavut (Adelson, 2005).
These peoples have been the victims of racist social attitudes dating back to 1876’s Indian Act, in which colonization was officially determined through First Nations recognition status (Adelson, 2005). This affects the Native Americans and the Inuit (as a result of a 1939 amendment to the Act), but the Metis are not forced to register to achieve a “recognition of status” (Adelson, 2005, p . 45). What this means is that those Aboriginal groups that live on government controlled reserves continue to receive government services while those who decide to venture off of these reserves do not (Adelson, 2005).
Those groups are deprived of the education and basic skills that would enable them to improve their status. In comparison to non-Aborigines, the Aboriginal groups often fail to complete their education at every level, which further reduces their opportunities (Adelson, 2005). In a 2002 study of off-reserve Aboriginals, less than half percent of these children complete the twelfth grade (Adelson, 2005). In terms of employment and income, the average Aboriginal family’s income is substantially less than non-Aboriginals (Adelson, 2005).
In 1991, the average Aboriginal income was $12,800, which was about half of the income of Canada’s non-Aboriginals (Adelson, 2005). Sociologists attribute the disparities in employment and income due to ethnic discrimination in the workplace, the lack of education accorded indigenous groups, the loss of property, and the “cultural genocide” they are forced to commit if they wish to assimilate (Adelson, 2005, p. 45). This “circle of disadvantage” results in the Aboriginals being mired in poverty and forced to take low- paying migrant jobs that are often seasonal and provide nothing in the way of employment security (Adelson, 2005, p. 5). Solely on the basis of their ethnicity, these peoples are relegated to the social periphery and are deprived of anything remotely resembling power, prestige, or wealth. In terms of their living conditions, many of the Aboriginal peoples are overcrowded, with 53 percent of the Inuit peoples and 17 percent of the Aboriginals living off-reserve living more than one person per room (Adelson, 2005). This is in comparison to 7 percent of white Canadians of European origin (Adelson, 2005).
In addition, Aboriginal homes are; twice as likely to be sorely in need of major repairs; about 90 times more likely to have no access to safe water supplied by pipes; five times more likely to have no type of bathroom facilities; and ten times more likely to have a toilet that does not flush (Adelson, 2005, p. 45). The Aborigines that do not live in government housing are exposed to appalling threats to their health and hygiene resulting from inferior housing, which has adversely affected their life expectancies (Adelson, 2005).
Despite their high adult mortality, the aboriginal population also has a high birth rate (Adelson, 2005). However, this also means their infant mortality rate is also higher than the national average. According to 1999 statistics, infant mortality rates were 8 out of 100 among First Nations’ peoples, which is 1. 5 times higher than the overall Canadian rate of infant mortality (Adelson, 2005). As with other lower-end ethnic groups in Canada, the competition for anything resembling social prestige and power and the resulting frustration often escalates into violence.
Within the Aboriginal groups, substance abuse, physical and sexual violence, and suicides are all too Common place (Adelson, 2005). Domestic violence statistics are high, with 39 percent of this population reporting such instances (Adelson, 2005). According to the 1999 published statistics 38 percent of reported deaths between young people ages 10 to 19 are due to suicide caused by the hopelessness of poverty and lack of social power (Adelson, 2005).
Although the Aboriginal groups that still live on-reserve are receiving government healthcare services, these services are not necessarily of the quality the rest of the population is getting due to the government’s inability to control First Nation treaty resources and the seemingly endless “bureaucratic maze” regarding Aboriginal healthcare policy and insufficient funding (Adelson, 2005, p. 45). Within the past three decades, there has been a notable shift in the Canadian population.
While the charter groups still comprised about 50 percent of the population, numerous other non-charter groups were rapidly combining to represent about one-third of the overall population (Driedger, 2001). Immigration pattern changes that began following the Second World War are largely responsible for a greater number of Southeast Asians and Latin Americans to relocate to Canada (Driedger, 2001). By the 1980s, the number of British Canadians began to rapidly slip and by 2001, while the British ranked ninth in population, 73 percent of immigrant settlers were either Asian, Latin American, or African (Gyimah et al, 2005).
Meanwhile, despite Canadian policymakers’ best intentions, social inequality persists because many of these immigrant classes are being denied their rightful participation in society. Although the French charter remains strong albeit geographically and culturally segregated and the British majority is floundering, the class determinants of charter membership and its perks that enable social inequality to continue are still in place.
The British population decrease has in no way adversely impacted their prestigious position or political influence. English is still the dominant language and European ancestry determines esteemed class status. Unfortunately, as long as access to prestige, power, and wealth remain limited to the charter few at the expense of the multicultural many, Canada’s social classes will sadly remain unequal. References Adelson, N. (2005). The embodiment of inequity: Health disparities in Aboriginal Canada.
Canadian Journal of Public Health, 96(2), 45-61. Driedger, L. (2001). Changing visions in ethnic relations. Canadian Journal of Sociology, 26(3), 421-451. Gyimah, S. O. , Walters, D. , ; Phythian, K. L. (2005). Ethnicity, immigration and housing wealth in Toronto. Canadian Journal of Urban Research, 14(2), 338-363. Hier, S. P. , ; Walby, K. (2006). Competing analytical paradigms in the sociological study of racism in Canada. Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal, 26(1), 83-104.
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