'Tone deaf' photo from defence chief is a reminder that 'talk is cheap': experts

·3 min read

TORONTO — A photo of eight white men posted to Twitter by the Canadian Armed Forces' chief of defence staff with a message supporting diversity should be a reminder that more inclusivity efforts are needed, observers said.

"It's hard to read too much into a picture, but that picture of white men around the table is a picture of traditional power and privilege... that is not representative of all of Canada," said Sen. Ratna Omidvar, who has long been outspoken about diversity issues and has pushed forward several bills encouraging equity.

"It's extremely unfortunate that that picture will stay in our minds for some time."

She and several communications experts said the tweet was "tone deaf" and lacked details about specific commitments the military has undertaken that would change the makeup of their ranks.

Their comments come a day after admiral Art McDonald took to Twitter with the image of several men — half in military fatigues — sitting around a table.

"Conversations on diversity, inclusion, and culture change are not incompatible with our thirst for operational excellence. I count on my senior leaders to champion culture change," he wrote.

"Diversity makes us stronger, inclusion improves our institution. We are #StrongerTogether."

The post quickly generated criticism on social media, before McDonald logged back on to tweet "I hear your comments and I take them to heart."

"It’s true: the leadership of the CAF is, and historically has been, predominantly male and white. That needs to change," he continued.

McDonald declined an interview request Friday.

However, he used his first address as chief of defence staff in January to apologize to victims of racism or discrimination and was part of a high-profile campaign that saw “seaman” dropped from the rank titles of junior sailors in favour of more gender-neutral terms.

Omidvar would have preferred to see a photo circulating online of McDonald working toward specific diversity commitments, some of which she researched online and said she's "not unimpressed" with.

"Words symbols, pictures, they matter and I sincerely hope...he's making a renewed commitment," she said.

She believes the incident should be a reminder of the power of social media and how important it is for organizations to gather evidence, set targets and timelines and be transparent on progress when they focus on diversity.

Tricia Doyle, managing director and business strategist at public relations firm Casacom, felt similarly.

"He made a laughingstock of himself and his organization. There's nothing to be proud of there," she said.

"It almost belongs in a 'what not to do' type of textbook."

However, she said people shouldn't look at this situation and laugh at it because that's not useful and doesn't address the systematic change organizations need.

Instead, she said people should take this a lesson that blanket diversity statements are not enough because they don't offer specific commitments and are not backed up by action.

"No one is looking for token changes," she said. "We're looking for systemic changes, we're looking for access to opportunity at all levels."

When Sarbjit Kaur, the co-founder KPW Communications, saw the tweet she thought it was problematic because it insinuated that operational excellence and diversity may be incompatible or that excellence could somehow be compromised in pursuit of diversity.

"Who thinks that?" she said in an email.

The picture, she added, suggests that the Canadian Armed Forces may be "talking the talk but not necessarily walking the walk."

"While well meaning, organizations are now expected to demonstrate that their words match their deeds," she said.

"People are tired of lip service and looking for real change after many years of advocating for diversity, inclusion and equity.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 12, 2021.

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press