The best person for the job [employment equity] – Opinion/Editorial
Published: Thursday, April 15, 2010

We were pleased (and, frankly, more than a little surprised) to hear Maria Barrados, president of the Public Service Commission, tell the Senate finance committee on Tuesday that parliamentarians should revisit whether women still need to be a designated as an “equity group” within the federal public service. With women filling 55% of all federal public-sector jobs and 43% of executive positions, it is clear they no longer need preferential hiring or promotion treatment, if they ever did.

But while parliamentarians are at it, they should go one bold step further and repeal protections for the other three favoured groups, too — aboriginals, visible minorities and the disabled. If Ottawa simply commits to hire on merit alone, over time the other three groups will achieve “reasonable representation” in the upper echelons of the federal public service, which was the original goal of the 1986 Employment Equity Act.

Taxpayers will be better served by a colour-, gender-and ability-blind hiring policy, too.

The hypocrisy of employment equity has always been that it replaced an alleged systemic discrimination — hard to see or quantify — with overt discrimination against mostly white, able-bodied men. Its goal should simply have been to eradicate instances of discrimination where they were found — to ensure everyone in the federal civil service had equal opportunity to find employment and advance regardless of their outward characteristics.

Instead, employment equity targets were based on the premise that discrimination was rife against women, visible minorities, First Nations people and the disabled, and the only way to overcome those biases was to replace them with another against the allegedly dominant group until the discriminated persons had achieved artificial levels of representation in the federal workforce.

Unfortunately the equity crusade and its underlying false assumptions of prejudice will be difficult to eliminate. Its myths about downtrodden women and other equity groups are ingrained in the public sector’s mindset. It is still federal policy, for instance, to make visible minorities one-fifth of all hires. Indeed the culture of victimhood is so entrenched in Ottawa that in 2005, Public Works Canada publicly announced that it would cease to hire able-bodied, white males for a time. Once this policy became public knowledge, it was quickly repealed. Still, no one in the department seemed instinctively to see anything wrong with the idea in the first place.

If a general mentality of prejudice in favour of men — i.e. a systemic discrimination — ever existed, it is long gone now. That means that continuing an employment equity policy risks placing skin colour or chromosomes or impairment above talent in civil service hires, which also means that social engineering will be given a higher priority than efficiency and competence.

Given that as many as 40% of federal civil servants will retire in the next 15 years and have to be replaced, Canadians cannot afford a system that rewards irrelevant criteria at the expense of simply finding the best stewards of their tax dollars.

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