''Job equity as seen through a rearview mirror''
From The Toronto Star: Wednesday, June 23, 1993. Page A27.
"Job equity as seen through a rearview mirror"
By Richard Gwyn
"Because the rate of unemployment among men is now higher
than among women, an objective of our employment equity law will
be to increase male unemployment."
Speech (sic) by Ontario Citizenship Minister Elaine Ziemba.
Ziemba of course never said anything so idiotic. Far worse,
she's doing it.
All kinds of specific criticisms of Ziemba's employment
equity bill can be made. It entrenches race-consciousness. Are
Lebanese, Armenians, Iranians, Jews indeed, "visible" or
invisible? How "native" does a person have to be -- one-half?
One-sixteenth? Should "disability" really include, as the
Canadian Human Rights Commission has ruled, the wearing of
My own criticism is more fundamental. The legislation is
obsolete. It drags us backward toward a fragmented past rather
than leading us toward a coherent future.
Ziemba's bill is based on the NDP government's 1991 report,
"Working Together Towards Equality." That report called for
equity legislation because "aboriginal people, people with
disabilities, member of racial minorities and women experience
higher rates of unemployment than other people."
No so today. Not so -- mostly -- even then.
Across Canada, the male unemployment rate is not 11.8 per
cent. The female rate is 10.9 per cent. Among young men, or
those about to be disadvantaged for the sake of the "sins" or
their fathers, the disparity in contrast to their female job
rivals is a whopping 20.5 per cent to 15.7 per cent.
The fall-back argument is that those men with jobs
nevertheless have most of the good jobs. True-ish. But not for
much longer. A majority of university students are now women,
and the gender-gap there keeps widening. Anyway, tell that to
Visible minorities, then, crippled by having to work in a
society that has been called "systemically racist"?
According to studies by the Economic Council of Canada in
1991 and 1992, immigrants (most from the Third World) have higher
earning rates and lower unemployment rates than native-born
Canadians (most of them of European origin). More to the point,
the studies found no evidence of pay discrimination against
immigrants of color.
Beyond any question, important groups in our society suffer
severe discrimination, direct or indirect. The disabled. Native
people. Certain visible minorities, blacks most particularly.
Certain women, such as single mothers.
These problems, though, are specific and local, and often
have complex causes. Ziemba's program indeed proposes some
imaginative specific solutions -- flex-time for women raising
children; special provisions for disabled workers.
But why are we dealing with these specific social problems
by a program of universal employment quotas -- renamed "numerical
goals" to make them sound better? A program, moreover, that is
bound to be socially divisive. It will provoke a backlash among
young men as they experience reverse discrimination and a
frontlash among women making them feel like tokens at the very
time they are moving up the ladder entirely on their own merit.
It will set visible minorities against each other.
We are behaving like idiots because we are looking at
ourselves in a rearview mirror.
The term "employment equity" was invented by Judge Rosalie
Abella in her 1984 royal commission report on the subject. She
concocted it as an alternative to the widely-used, but
increasingly criticized term, "affirmative action."
Putting new wrapping around the same contents (quotas;
reverse discrimination) was smart salespersonship. "Equity" is
the ultimate, hot-button word in the Canadian public discourse.
To criticize equity employment because, henceforward, to be a
sexist, racist, dinosaur.
Back then, much of this was justified: Stereotypes did need
to be smashed and role-models created. Since then, most Canadian
dinosaurs have become extinct.
Economic change is the principal cause. The heaviest job
losses have been in the traditional male occupations -- forestry,
mining, heavy industry. The principal job-growth has been in
self-employment -- personal services, stores and restaurants --
where women and visible minorities are most active.
Belatedly, our businesses have got smart. Increasingly --
survival as the spur -- their employees match the "diversity" of
their customers. Between 1986 and 1989 alone, the number of
visible minorities on the staffs of the chartered banks more than
doubled, to 13 per cent.
Economics isn't everything. The reason "equity" is a hot-
button word in Canadian public life is because most Canadians to
want to act equitable.
Not that we are without sin. The most sinful, though, are
those now preaching at us. The Ontario government employs an
outrageously small number of native people -- just 1,099.
Even our laggard institutions, though, aren't being that
inequitable. Mostly they've still got too many white men in
suits because another equity rules requires them to respect
The specific employment inequities are long overdue to be
But it's also time overdue for us to stop staring in the
We have a chance to become a true "distinct society" -- the
first country in the world not to need a clumsy and an expensive,
and far, far, worse, a socially divisive, employment equity law
because that society is already becoming irreversibly equitable.
In short, let's take the dare on us behaving like Canadians --
not like Bosnians.
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