10/31/2012 06:19 EDT | Updated 12/31/2012 05:12 EST

ePassport Images Under Fire For Lack Of Diversity

OTTAWA - The Harper government awarded itself some wins and a loss Wednesday as it fended off criticism for erasing women and minorities from Canada's past.

Passport Canada came under fire this week after The Canadian Press disclosed that focus groups had complained that images chosen for new passports short-change Canada's multiculturalism and the contributions of women.

The series of more than a dozen iconic images, printed as watermarks in the pages of the new passports, include landmarks and famous white men but show little human diversity, said the focus groups consulted for the agency in April.

Passport Canada fought back, noting it had included a famous photograph of the Last Spike about the 1885 completion of the transcontinental railway, showing some Chinese labourers.

Chinese-Canadian historians immediately challenged that assertion, and the government has backed down, now acknowledging no Chinese workers or any visible minorities appear in the photo.

The agency also said that after the focus-group report it tweaked two other pictures — one of a hockey game and the other of four Mounties on horseback — to digitally add females and visible minority people in each, though the changes are difficult to discern in the faint watermark images.


Canada's New ePassport

Minority activists and critics said the government's update of its diversity scorecard is meaningless.

"Two token images — one of a woman, one of a visible minority — so weak they are practically invisible to the naked eye do not diversity make," said Rachel Decoste, a visible-minority activist and motivational speaker in Ottawa.

"Canadian women's role in our country's history should never be reduced to a singular female face on a hockey player's body.

"Nor can the presence of visible minorities in Canada, dating back to Samuel de Champlain's maiden voyage, be affirmed by a single darkened face in a portrait of four Mounties."

Victor Wong, head of the Chinese Canadian National Council, noted the government had the choice of many other archival photos clearly depicting labourers from China building the railway.

He also objected to an image of Canada's north, which includes a photo of explorer Capt. Joseph-Elzéar Bernier rather than the Arctic's aboriginal peoples. No aboriginal people are included in any of the images, though an eagle feather and Inukshuk are featured.

"The government should put more effort into including women, and indigenous and diverse communities on the new passport design," Wong said from Toronto.

A spokeswoman for Passport Canada declined to provide less opaque renditions of the watermark images.

"The complexity of the images is — first and foremost — a security feature that makes the passport more difficult to counterfeit," said Beatrice Fenelon.

"For this reason, I will not be able to send you clearer pictures of the images."

Fenelon added that the many of the images without people in them — such as Niagara Falls — were intended to "showcase our natural diversity."

The focus-group project, awarded to Phoenix Strategic Perspectives Inc. for $53,000, included two small groups in each of four cities. The project was intended primarily as a "disaster check" to ensure there were no offensive images included.

The new passport design won praise from Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird in a media unveiling last week, at which he said it "tells the world who we are."

The first of the new passports, which include microchip technology to make them more fraud-proof, are being issued early next year. They will be renewable for up to 10 years for a higher cost than current passports.


On the web: www.passport.gc.ca/eppt/photos.aspx?lang=eng

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