Words matter

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Christiane Essombe Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Advisor

Over the last several years, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Canada has been on a journey to embed the principles of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI), anti-oppression and anti-racism (AOAR) in all parts of our work.

To hold ourselves accountable and track our progress, these efforts have been linked to specific targets related to:

  1. Processes, practices and policies that prevent any normalized inequities.
  2. Increased representation of the ethnocultural diversity of Canada and intersectional minoritized identities at all levels of the organization.
  3. Fostering a culture highly aware of and oriented toward dismantling the premises of historical inequities, privilege and oppression (both in Canada and globally).
  4. Contributions to reducing inequities and advancing anti-racist actions across MSF globally.

The proactive and deliberate prevention of inequities in MSF Canada’s practices and an increased awareness of historical inequities require the examination of a medium that MSF Canada uses every day: language.

We acknowledge that language in the humanitarian sector often reinforces topdown power structures, which can in turn rob the agency of the very people humanitarian organizations seek to work with.

Recently, MSF Canada conducted an English language workshop to revisit commonly used terminology and unpack
colonial, disempowering and inappropriate connotations associated to terms historically used in MSF Canada and across the humanitarian sector at large. A follow-up conversation specifically focusing on reflecting our increased EDI/AOAR awareness in our communication in French will also take place.

Since unlearning (that is, no longer doing something that was normalized or expected) is critical to any EDI/AOAR journey, you can expect in our material to use revised language reflecting our growing EDI/AOAR awareness. Some examples:

  • When referring to activities or periods of staff work, ‘project’ and ‘assignment’ replace ‘mission,’ which has colonial and military connotations.
  • Use of geographic or other specific references when referring to MSF’s work in specific communities rather than the homogenizing and ostracizing term ‘field.’
  • Deliberate efforts to prevent double standards when referring to staff. Terms such as ‘expats’ and ‘national staff’ no longer used. The focus will be on the work done by MSF staff, not their origin.

Updating our language is one of the many actions we are committed to in order to realize MSF Canada’s EDI vision. Please stay tuned for more updates on our journey.