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Time to modernize the Employment Equity Act

On December 15, 2020, CAUT hosted a virtual discussion on the Employment Equity Act to explore the Act’s impact and what more needs to be done.

Facilitator and CAUT Equity Committee Co-Chair Pat Armstrong noted that the Act’s roots go back to 1984 when Justice Rosalie Abella released her report from the Royal Commission on Equality in Employment. The Abella Report broke new ground by introducing  the concept of “employment equity”, a uniquely Canadian policy to address workplace barriers facing  equity-seeking groups.

The Abella Report led to the creation of the the Employment Equity Act, the Legislated Employment Equity Program (LEEP) and the Federal Contractors Program (FCP).

Speaker Carol Agócs, Professor Emerita in the Department of Political Science at Western University, said that Justice Abella emphasized that understanding the meaning of equality was of central importance.

“The key to understanding what is involved in implementing the Employment Equity Act is respect for differences, which is what allows people to be treated as equals. Ignoring differences creates inequality.”

Agócs summarized the strengths, weaknesses, and impact of the Act. She noted, for example, that companies and organizations that fell under the Federal Contractors Program were more likely have a diverse workforce than those that did not.

“Today's workplace is quite different from the one for which the Employment Equity Act was designed,’ she added. “In a best-case scenario, the newly announced Task Force to Modernize the Employment Equity Act might address some of the weaknesses built into the Act, recommend adequate funding to support the proper implementation by employers, and the auditing and enforcement functions of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.”

Larry Rousseau, Executive Vice-President of the Canadian Labour Congress, highlighted the long-standing need to strengthen the Act to move beyond rhetoric to truly diverse, equitable and inclusive workplaces. 

“Will the Act allow for consideration of groups who are subject to systemic discrimination but who are not currently subject to the Act?” he asked. “Will LGBTQS+ become a fifth designated group?”

Rousseau also flagged the use of the term "visible minorities" which has been widely criticized for bringing together many very different groups that can hide the distinct forms of racism and discrimination faced by, for example,  Black people, Muslims or Sikhs.

Rousseau explained the need to examine not only the representation of members of equity-seeking groups across workplaces, but also the places where they work, the jobs they hold and their presence at different levels within the workforce.  

“Do they [equity-seeking group members] have access to promotions, do they have opportunities to develop their skills and advance in their careers? What steps have been taken to change things? Which ones are effective? Will the law have the teeth it needs to achieve employment equity goals? What steps need to be taken to demand and achieve accountability? How can we better integrate intersectionality in assessing the success? Will the law allow for the collection and use for administrative purposes of data, properly subdivided, to better understand the barriers that may continue to pose problems for equity-seeking groups?”

Malinda Smith, a political science professor and the inaugural Vice Provost (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) at the University of Calgary, focused on data gaps hindering the capacity to measure progress within the Federal Contractors Program, and the implications for universities and colleges.

“Universities have gender data, because it's on all the forms that we fill out, but no comparable data for visible/racialized minorities, Indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities or LGBTQ. It is a patchwork of uneven data collection which we must address, and equally so, this ‘one size fits all approach’. If you're not identifying the barriers and biases that means you are unable to talk about removing those barriers.”

Smith noted that before the Conservative government raised the threshold for FCP requirements from $200,000 to $1 million in 2013, about 60 post-secondary institutions were involved, but now only a few are required to undertake workforce systems analysis. She argued the Act must extend to more workplaces with stronger accountability mechanisms. Smith pointed to the recent changes to the Canada Research Chairs program as an example, suggesting that this could be expanded so that any institution receiving federal funds be required to make progress on employment equity.

During the discussion, participants emphasize the critical role of social movements and trade unions to drive legislative change at the federal and provincial levels and accountability at the institutional level.  The value of employment equity legislation as distinct from human rights protections was also discussed, specifically the need for pro-active action to address barriers for those groups facing systemic and sustained discrimination in the workforce.

Listen to the full conversation here