Employment Equity: A Misnomer

September 1 st 1992

A powerful wave of politically correct morality is now sweeping the nation, pretending to right the wrongs of past discrimination. It goes by the positive-sounding name of affirmative action, affecting the hiring, promotion, and compensation of women, aboriginal people, the handicapped, and visible minorities. Federal and provincial governments, now with Ontario in the vanguard, are busy putting in place far-reaching regulations aimed at eliminating the socalled wage gap between male and female workers (pay equity). Similarly, employment equity programs are designed to make sure that employers hire and promote appropriate numbers from the designated groups.

The proponents of these policies inundate us with righteous-sounding exhortations intended to inflict a severe case of guilt. And often they succeed. Consequently, many keep their heads down, reluctantly going along with what in their hearts they know to be a gigantic hoax, but afraid to speak up for fear of being branded racist or sexist.

The climate of these discussions is now thoroughly poisoned by cheap shots and rhetorical nonsense. Brace yourself for a nasty reaction if you dare challenge the claim that women are suffering from "systemic" discrimination requiring "systemic" intervention by the state. "So, you are against equality for women; you must be afraid of losing the position of power that you (being a white male) now enjoy."

The only appropriate response to this accusation is to continue to speak the truth. And the truth about the egalitarian ambitions is that far from leading us into a future of social justice and harmony, they accomplish the very opposite. This is not surprising, given that the premises underlying the socalled affirmative action programs are based on a purely historical (i.e., man-made versus God-ordained) notion of truth and justice. This starting point is further compounded by the belief that we are able to build the desired society by means of social engineering and, particularly, by the manipulation of political power. This theory has a long history and cannot be easily withstood, especially in an age of thirty-second news soundbites and the quick fix.

Societal fallout of this ideology can be briefly stated in the following way. We have made freedom and equality into absolutes, but by doing so we have simultaneously set the two in conflict with each other. (The more equality, the less freedom; the more freedom, the less equality.) When this kind of conflict is set in motion, neither freedom nor equality will be attained. For confronted with a choice between freedom and equality, the tendency is to choose equality. And we are not talking about equality of opportunity and equality before the law but an engineered equality of outcome.

Thus begins a process that gradually undermines and hollows out our constitutional freedom in the name of equality.

It is no accident that the new equality programs are focused especially on the workplace. The areas of work and business have presented a formidable barrier against the all-powerful state. In our daily work, we are constantly making innumerable decisions that affect our material and social wellbeing. It is largely the failure of the social engineers' attempts to predict such decisions that has led them to push for new forms of regulation. Employment and pay equity legislation is part of their continuing effort to control human behaviour in their quest to reconstruct society. This essentially totalitarian mindset must be opposed in principle.

The problem with exploring the underlying ideology of the new egalitarianism spawning the affirmative action policies is that many find it too theoretical and abstract. For this reason we also need to pay attention to the results of such policies. Those results are now becoming evident, causing some people, including those who originally were supporters, to change their minds. After all, ideas have consequences. Let's take a look at some specifics.

Discrimination all the same

Lina Campbell, writing in The Toronto Star (September 17, 1992) explained how she had been shut out of a job, despite the fact that she also belongs to a designated preferred category. Although a job had been as much as assured her, she was later told that the offer was withdrawn. The position had not been eliminated, but had now been allocated to a member of a visible minority.

There is a double irony in this. Campbell had faced discrimination as a woman when she tried to enter the School of Business at a well-known university in Ontario. She fought bravely against it and was admitted, graduating with an honours degree and eventually becoming a bank manager.

While Campbell is all in favour of eliminating discrimination, she now feels unfairly treated by the same so-called affirmative action policies she once applauded. Because she has experienced these policies as a new kind of discrimination, she is reconsidering her earlier enthusiastic support of them. This is what makes Campbell inclined to think that perhaps she should fall back on her Italian roots and present herself as a member of a minority category.

Advocates of the new discriminatory hiring and promotion policies never tire of saying that their policies do not constitute discrimination against anyone. They seek to assure us that the policies are merely removing traditional obstacles in the hiring and promotion of minorities. But the facts are clearly otherwise. Increasingly, governments and other organizations, especially educational institutions, are adopting policies aimed at giving preference in hiring and promotion to members of the designated categories.

For example, the British Columbia government has advertised for certain governmental vacancies accompanied by this information: "In accordance with Section 19.1 (1) of the Human Rights Act preference will be given to members of the following under-represented groups: Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities, visible minorities and women." Other governments have published similar advertisements.

Another example is provided by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Alberta. One hiring policy bulletin distributed by the RCMP baldly stated: "Effective immediately, K Division will suspend all regular member applications in the white male category indefinitely." This policy is defended by arguing that it does not eliminate the rule that the most competent applicants will be chosen. But if an entire category of potential employees is eliminated, their abilities and performance are not even tested against those of the preferred group.

Such preference is very different from treating all applicants equally regardless of their race or gender. Nonetheless, people responsible for putting these policies in place use plenty of bafflegab to deny that they are engaging in any kind of discrimination.

Protests of people thus discriminated against are becoming more angry and numerous. For example, Carey Moran recently wrote in The Toronto Sun (June 16, 1992) that her husband, a gas fitter, was told by Consumers Gas Company that they had now in place a "government sanctioned program" in which job application questions were geared to race and country of origin. One can indeed rightly ask, as Moran did, what do race and country of origin have to do with being a competent gas fitter?

Another problem with implementing affirmative action policies is that the status of visible minorities and aboriginal people is sometimes not clear-cut. A person may be of mixed parentage and thus fall somewhere in between. In such instances, where should the line be drawn between one race and another? Who determines questionable cases? The fact that such race-based questions must be asked points to the dangerous direction in which we are heading.

The Ontario government cleverly thought to escape this troubling issue by leaving it up to employees to declare themselves to be a member of one of the designated categories. That "solution" appears to be brilliant until the consequences are considered. It will, of necessity, lead to the imposition of a dangerous and ridiculous kind of race policing and categorizing. Furthermore, it is open to widespread abuse. Consider the following two examples:

  1. A county employee in Maryland by the name of Robert Earl Lee decided to change his name to Roberto Eduardo Leon, after which he requested to be reclassified as a member of a minority. This request was granted and he thus became eligible for promotion ahead of other white males.

  2. Another American case concerned the twins Phil and Paul Malone who were rejected by the Boston fire department because of poor test scores. A few years later they applied again, but now they declared themselves to be black. They were promptly hired because it no longer mattered that their exam scores of 57 per cent and 69 per cent fell far short of the passing grade of 82 per cent required for whites (The WorklifeReport, Vol. 8, No. 4, 1992, pp. 14-15).

Lest you think that such unfairness would never happen in Canada, the fire department in Kitchener, Ontario previously hired new employees on the basis of their performance on a number of tests. Recently, the City Council changed that policy by deciding that visible minorities and women need to score only 70 per cent on a particular test while male applicants for new jobs have to score 85 per cent.

How would you feel if you were rejected in favour of someone else with inferior qualifications? This kind of discrimination will rightly be experienced as an insult and a grave injustice to those who are thus discriminated against.

Unfortunately, these cases are not exceptions. The sad fact is that they are now occurring in many instances, leading to a great deal of anger and resentment by those who are deliberately left out of the competition or otherwise treated in a discriminatory manner. All of us ought to favour the elimination of deliberate discrimination on the basis of race, colour, and gender. But we should just as much object to this new kind of discrimination. If it is wrong to discriminate against people because they are black, it is just as wrong to discriminate against them because they are white.

Reverse discrimination will continue to fan the flames of resentment and anger despite the posturing of those who are convinced that they know best how society should be organized. Ironically, the very people who describe our society as racist and sexist are contributing to the conflict by imposing policies based on race and gender. We should not be surprised that Lina Campbell contemplated falling back on her Italian roots in order to get a job in Canada. Nor should we blame her. The blame rests with those who, while proclaiming their deep commitment to fairness and justice, put in place a system that is profoundly unjust.


Harry Antonides came to Canada in 1948, initially working as a farm hand and railway labourer. After over a decade working in a chemical plant in Sarnia, Ontario, Harry joined the newly forming Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) in 1962 as a field representative. By 1970 Harry became director of research and education. In 1974, he was a founding member of the Work Research Foundation (now Cardus) and publisher of their sole publication, Comment magazine. A prolific writer and dynamic speaker, Harry delivered lectures all over North America and published numerous articles, reviews, and essays. He is author of several books on Christianity, labour, and economics, including Multinationals and the Peacable Kingdom (1978) and Stones for Bread: The Social Gospel and its Contemporary Legacy (1985). Harry is retired and lives with his wife Janet in Willowdale, Ontario.