Employment Equity or Affirmative Action in Canada?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Anthony Stewart, Dalhousie University
Guest Contributor

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) held its first forum  on equity issues in February 2009. When you consider that this forum helped to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Royal Commission on Equality in Employment – the Abella Report – that introduced the term “employment equity” into the Canadian lexicon, you can’t help but wonder about the actual importance of equity issues within university life. But, as a member of CAUT’s Equity Committee, the more pressing question is what good the notion of employment equity is really doing. Equity has been a term that has been in place to smooth over the injustices built into our society. But the smoothing has been as much about the ruffled feathers of those who continue to believe that our society has no injustices, that the “best man” gets the job, and that a colour-blind society is the progressive ideal towards which we should be striving.

In addition to this desire to smooth over the problem, employment equity—instead of trying to make a place of business look differently than it historically has, as affirmative action attempts to do—has had the unintended (I hope) consequence of playing off the interests of one group against those of others. So, when the issue of “equity” is raised in conversation, all too often the gesture of self-congratulation has included the declaration, “We’ve done very well where women are concerned.” This statement would carry considerably more weight with me if it meant all women, instead of what it has actually meant in practice: able-bodied, middle-class white women.

Now, I know how harsh this sounds.

This is the point where I get accused of reverse racism,  a fascinating term, since those who use it are rarely able to acknowledge the existence of racism itself. But my point is that by smoothing over these issues as we have through the language of employment equity, we have built an elaborate edifice whose structure was designed to carry the burden of what we have chosen / agreed / decided not to talk about. While this course of inaction has the attraction of appearing as a victimless crime, it is not. The victims are the people who continue to be systemically excluded from certain places of employment, including the university. They continue to be told that their exclusion is somehow their own fault, since “we have an employment equity policy.” Unstated is: “we have an employment equity policy that just excludes you.”

The passing of 25 years since the Abella Report means that we have to recognize the time to update the vocabulary we use to address the issues that led to that report in the first place. In You Must Be a Basketball Player: Rethinking Integration in the University,  I argue that we need to engage with prospects of diversity hiring as a good to be actively sought within our workplaces, as opposed to continuing with the rhetoric of “historical redress” that leaves members of the majority feeling blamed and members of minority groups feeling patronized. I also argue that we owe our students the opportunity to get some constructive practice thinking about and talking about issues pertaining to representation in the workplace. If they get that practice now—instead of continuing to pretend that there is no problem—they might be prepared to effect the change that preceding generations could not.

Anthony Stewart is Associate Professor in the Department of English at Dalhousie University, and the author of You Must Be a Basketball Player: Rethinking Integration in the University (Fernwood, 2009). He is a member of CAUT’s Equity Committee. Email: / Read Anthony Stewart's full profile.


Equity Matters


Equity Matters