Opinion: PSAC fears equal opportunity in the workplace is the latest Conservative target

The Public Service Alliance of Canada recently issued the following warning: “First the Harper Conservatives cancelled the mandatory long-form census, now they're going after the federal Employment Equity Act that depends on this data with the announcement that they will be reviewing employment equity policies and practices in the federal public service.”

The statement follows an announcement on July 22nd that Treasury Board president Stockwell Day, in consultation with the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration, and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, asked for a review of the provisions of the Public Service Employment Act as well as any related policies and practices, with a view of ensuring that all Canadians have an equal opportunity in applying for positions in the federal Public Service.

"While we support diversity in the Public Service, we want to ensure that no Canadian is barred from opportunities in the public service based on race or ethnicity," said Minister Day when making the announcement.‬

"I strongly agree with the objective of creating a Public Service that reflects the diversity of Canada, and with fair measures designed to reach that goal. But we must ensure that all Canadians have an equal opportunity to work for their government based on merit, regardless of race or ethnicity," Kenney echoed.

"The government claims to support diversity but its news release implies the opposite," says PSAC national executive vice-president Patty Ducharme. "It reinforces the misconception that equal opportunity is threatened by employment equity measures and that employment equity hiring policies are not based on merit."

Alliance is not alone in their concern
In a recent Faculty Blog on the University of Alberta Faculty of Law website, contributor Dr. James Muir noted that what Stockwell Day and Minister Kenney meant in their comments was, “is that white guys should get jobs with the federal government too and the current policy prevents this.

“This is a canard, frequently trotted out to mollify the able-bodied white guy who didn't get the job,” Muir says. “..The thing is, Employment Equity is not about individual cases: it’s about trying to address systemic differences, where the breakdown by gender, Aboriginal status, ability or ethnicity at an employer or in a job category is different from the breakdown of the population as a whole.”

Interestingly, Muir also notes that employment equity program “should not be permanent: they should remain in effect until balance between the workplace and the population is met. The problem with [the recent] announcement is that absent equity, the government is consciously moving federal employment toward a position that will be less equitable than it is today for no particularly good reason.”

Less than two per cent of job competitions in the federal public service are designated for equity group members, and managers have to justify the use of these designations with data showing large gaps in their workforce representation.

"In fact, the government needs to be doing more to ensure diversity throughout its workforce," says PSAC’s Ducharme.

A recent Senate Committee on Human Rights report says the federal public service is not keeping up with the private sector in terms of hiring a diverse workforce. According to the report, "As the largest employer in the country, the federal public service should be representative of the public it serves, and should be providing leadership for businesses in other sectors rather than struggling to be representative enough for an increasingly diverse population."

"Canadians value fairness and equality," says Ducharme. "These values are reflected in the fact that Canada is seen as a leader with its progressive employment equity law and policies. This latest announcement follows earlier decisions by the Harper government involving pay equity, the Court Challenges Program and the work of the rights agencies such as Rights and Democracy that undermine these values in our society."

"If there is to be a review of employment equity practices, it should be with the goal of making the federal public service more reflective of the diversity of Canada's population," says Ducharme. "And any review must be open to Parliamentary and public scrutiny."