In one of the Human Resources classes I teach one of my students recently asked the following question:  Why, after more than thirty years since the passage of Canada’s Employment Equity Act have there been no changes in the composition of the four designated groups (i.e. Women, Visible Minorities, Aboriginal Peoples, Persons with Disabilities)?  She made the controversial suggestion that given the advancement of Women and Visible Minorities in our society that perhaps it was time to re-visit the issue.

That got me thinking about employment equity in Canada, and whether this country isn’t long overdue for a serious, critical and evidence-based review of employment equity.

The emergence of Employment Equity legislation in Canada dates to 1984 with the creation of the Abella Commission.  Headed by now Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella the Commission Report laid the foundation upon which the Federal Government’s 1986 Employment Equity Act was created.  The Act singled out four designated groups (i.e. Women, Visible Minorities, Aboriginal Peoples, Persons with Disabilities) as deserving of special attention and measures to “correct the conditions of disadvantage”.  While the Act only applies to federally regulated workplaces comprising about 10% of Canadian employees it has had a profound effect in shaping social policy and human resources administration.

History of Employment Equity in Canada

Of the four designated groups women and visible minorities have clearly made the most progress.  For ten years I worked with one of Canada’s leading banks.  I saw first-hand the money, time and attention that was spent on various programs to encourage, support and promote awareness of employment equity and particularly, the needs of designated group members.  Based on what I saw a disproportionate amount of time and effort was directed towards Women and Visible Minorities.  Indeed, the federal government’s 2017 Employment Equity Report indicated that Visible Minorities have now exceeded the Local Market Availability.

Women and visible minorities have made spectacular gains in the past thirty years.  The results for Persons with Disabilities and Aboriginal Peoples is clearly not where it should be.  I don’t pretend for a moment that overt or systemic discrimination doesn’t exist, or that in some organizations the glass ceiling has disappeared.  Clearly, both are still in evidence.  However, when I think back to my undergraduate years in the early to mid-1970’s women and visible minorities existed in only small numbers.  As a History and Political Science student probably less than 20% of my classes contained women, and non-white students were few and far between.  Today, most of the classes I teach are female dominant, and non-white students are clearly in the majority.

Differing Perspectives on Employment Equity

Proponents of employment equity maintain that it is necessary to amend historic wrongs and to ameliorate the economic differences among groups.  Those who oppose it do so on several levels.

Some have argued that lumping all racial and ethnic groups into a holding tank labelled “visible minorities” diminishes the unique challenges faced by some groups more than others.   Others maintain that employment equity is an affront to fundamental concepts of fairness and equality that are the foundation of our liberal democratic society.  And some, such as author Martin Loney, in his book “Pursuit of Division:  Race, Gender and Preferential Hiring in Canada”, contended that it is really social class and not membership in a particular ethnic or cultural group that determines one’s probability of success.   Loney maintains that a whole sub-industry has emerged around employment equity, and the constant focus and emphasis upon gender and racial bias in our society is misplaced. 

Who is Falling Between the Cracks?

Against this policy backdrop what is also evident is that other groups in this country have or are clearly “falling through the cracks”.  Here, for instance, are four forgotten groups, I believe, are deserving of renewed consideration and special attention.

  1. Older workers.  Every day I deal with men and women ranging in age from 45 to their early 60’s who have been downsized from their employer.  Invariably, these are dedicated, sincere and loyal individuals who worked with their employer for ten, twenty and sometimes even thirty years.  Usually, they are within a few years of taking retirement, and the prospect of being terminated and having to look for a new job was the farthest thing from their minds.  While sometimes the employer was faced with economic pressures and had no choice, often, it is a case of either corporate restructuring or a company wanting to introduce “new blood” (translate:  hiring younger employees at half the salary).
  2. Hard to employ youth.  The problem of youth unemployment is real, particularly in inner city neighbourhoods in this country.  Young people who grow up in a family situation characterized by a cycle of unemployment, welfare and crime face huge obstacles.  Community activists will tell you that it comes down to employment, but too often companies and organizations are reluctant to take a chance on hiring young people and providing them with that all important first opportunity.
  3. Foreign professionals.  We have all heard the stories of doctors, nurses, dentists and others driving cabs or performing menial work.  At a time when many communities in this country are scrambling to find qualified, trained medical professionals it is disturbing to hear of so many foreign trained professionals working at jobs unrelated to their training.  This is a huge economic cost, and the time and costs these people face in being re-trained are daunting.
  4. Rehabilitated criminals.  If the hard to employ youth finds a way into crime then it should come as no surprise that many of them get convicted and are incarcerated.  Once their time is served they are released back into their community, but the stigma they face in securing employment is daunting. Little wonder that the culture of crime and poverty is a repetitive one.

Hitting the Re-Set Button

All of which begs the question:  where are the employment equity programs for these groups?  Who looks after their needs?  Certainly, there are social service organizations who work with displaced older workers to help with retraining and finding new employment.  However, the discrimination facing displaced employees over 55 is pervasive.  By the same token, we have organizations working with young people under 25 to help them secure employment.  Organizations like the John Howard Society and the Elizabeth Fry Society provide support to former convicts in helping the secure jobs.   Groups such as Goodwill and the YMCA/YWCA do yeoman work in helping to prepare young people to find stable, fulfilling employment.  While all of this is noble, realistically, without a compelling program in place to monitor the hiring of certain groups meaningful progress will remain elusive.

Part of the reason that the hiring of women has garnered so much public attention has a lot to do with economics.  This is clearly true if one examines the banking sector.  Women represent a major financial market, and exercise considerable influence in most consumer purchasing decisions.  They hold responsible jobs, they have corporate visibility, exercise greater control now in corporate boardrooms, and they vote.  The people in the banking sector who manage employment equity programs will tell you they are motivated by a desire for compliance and social justice, but the hard truth behind their advocacy has more to do with “dollars and cents”  and market share than any altruistic desire for equity or broad social reform.  Women are also an organized and effective lobby and public interest group whose numbers are significant.  By contrast, older workers, hard to employ youth, foreign professionals and rehabilitated criminals are a silent, disorganized and invisible mass.

Which brings me back to the underlying thesis of this blog, and the compelling question:   if displaced older workers, unemployed youth, underemployed foreign professionals, and former felons, all face obstacles and impediments just as daunting as the current designated group members, where is their employment equity program?  Where is the renewed public policy commitment that seeks to redress the injustices they have faced that preclude many of from being given consideration or getting a chance…or even, a second chance?  And why aren’t federally regulated businesses in Canada reporting on, hiring or promoting these group members?  The answer, I submit, has a lot to do with optics and money.

A Final Thought

When the Canadian federal government passed the Employment Equity Act it did so with the laudable intention of redressing systemic bias and discrimination.  The supports and tools that have been introduced since then have clearly benefitted some designated group members more than others.  However, the time has come in this country to critically re-examine this program with a view to re-focusing on the needs of others.