Job equity has old Tory roots

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial
Published On Sat Jul 24 2010

Canada has a proud tradition of embracing equal opportunity and employment equity, dating from the Progressive Conservative governments of John Diefenbaker and Brian Mulroney.

Diefenbaker’s 1960 Bill of Rights helped stem the tide of racial discrimination in this country, though it failed to redress long-standing under-representation of minorities in the public service. Mulroney’s trail-blazing Employment Equity Act of 1986 went further in closing the gap between a largely white public service and an increasingly diversified national workforce.

Now, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have announced they will revisit that legacy of diversity. Fresh from their attack on Statistics Canada, they are embarking on a major review of employment equity in the federal government.

Treasury Board President Stockwell Day, who oversees the public service, has seized on the story of Sara Landriault, a child-care choice advocate whose website shows her posing with Harper. She was told she could not continue an online job application because she is white.

The affirmative action program is clumsy, to say the least, when it refuses to even consider worthy applicants of other backgrounds. The question is what Day and his voluble ally, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, are really up to here. The targeting of specific groups — such as aboriginals, the disabled, visible minorities and women — to the exclusion of other applicants is hardly rampant: of the 5,000 public service jobs posted last year, only 91 were designated for one group, such as aboriginals.

A maladroit web application process can be modified, but that does not mean that the rest of the employment equity philosophy should be discarded, throwing minorities out with the bathwater. If the Tories were to follow up by tweaking the offending measure, fair enough. But look at what Kenney is saying: “All positions should be on the basis of equality of opportunity and merit.”

Actually, that’s what the Bill of Rights attempted in 1960, and it did almost nothing to right the wrongs of exclusion in employment. That’s why the landmark report of a royal commission headed by Rosie Abella (now a Supreme Court justice) argued persuasively that affirmative action was needed to redress the imbalances — with recruitment and targeting of under-represented groups.

Do Day and Kenney cling to a 1960s-era view of “equality of opportunity,” or can they accept the present-day consensus for affirmative action, which has helped make the public service more reflective of the Canadians it serves?

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