Diversity a low priority in civil service
TheStar.com – Opinion – Diversity a low priority in civil service
September 14, 2009. Carol Goar
Tired of endless studies and unkept promises, a handful of non-white employees of the federal government forged a solidarity pact 10 years ago to fight for change from within.
They founded the National Council of Visible Minorities. They vowed to change the face of the public service and knock down the barriers that held people back because of their skin colour.
It was an ambitious goal. At the time, visible minorities made up 12.5 per cent of the Canadian population and 4.1 per cent of the federal workforce.
Last week, the 10-year-old council met in Toronto to celebrate its anniversary and do some sober stock-taking.
The founders’ vision of an inclusive, barrier-free public service remains distant. Today, visible minorities make up 16.4 per cent of the Canadian population (46.9 per cent of Toronto’s population) and 9.2 per cent of the federal workforce.
A small vanguard of non-Caucasians has made it into the executive ranks of Health Canada, Human Resources and Service Canada. But most of the government’s 200 ministries and agencies are overwhelmingly white at the top.
One department, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, has reached the 17 per cent mark in visible minority representation (chiefly because it hires staff for its foreign consulates locally). But most departments are below 10 per cent.
There are a few trailblazers in senior management, but most of Ottawa’s deputy ministers treat diversity as an afterthought.
No one denies that progress has been made. The gap is narrowing. There are more non-white faces in the public service.
But the high hopes of 1999 have given way to a hard-headed recognition that this is going to be a long, hard battle.
“We’re always going to be chasing an elusive threshold,” said Wendy Barrow of Service Canada, who was instrumental in converting some of the council’s proposals into action. “But we need to stay focused.
“Keep raising the issue. Find out how your department is doing. Keep requesting meetings with deputy ministers.”
P.K. Leung, one of the founders of the council (now retired), was blunter. “The main thing is to sustain your network. Deputy ministers come and go. You’re the ones who are going to stick around.”
If there was any nostalgia, it was for a brief interlude at the turn of the millennium when it looked as if a breakthrough was imminent.
The federal government released a five-year strategy called Embracing Change. It set a recruiting target of one non-white employee for every five jobs by 2003. It also undertook to raise visible minority representation in its executive group to 20 per cent by 2005.
When the program “sunsetted” four years ago, neither of these benchmarks had been reached. Nor are they likely to be in the foreseeable future.
The person with the most thankless job at the conference was Angela Henry, director of workplace policies and programs at the federal Treasury Board. She monitors representation of visible minorities, women and aboriginal peoples in the public service and holds senior managers to account.
The long-time federal lawyer believes in employment equity. But she cannot criticize the government for which she works. So she stuck to the facts and offered the best advice she could.
She explained that her office can no longer apply pressure to slow-moving departments. Stephen Harper’s government has decentralized the public service, letting each department decide its own workplace policies.
“There will be fewer across-the-board measures,” Henry said. “There won’t be a pot of money (for employment equity).
“To build a representative public service, we need to integrate this into our daily work and our daily planning.”
There were a few worried questions from the floor and discouraging answers from the podium.
It wasn’t a happy anniversary. But it left delegates clear-eyed about the task ahead.
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