Feds hiring racism officers

Nine officers will be stationed across the country to combat racism, harassment in the workplace

Drawing attention to the Canadian economy’s growing reliance on an immigrant workforce, federal Minister of Labour Jean-Pierre Blackburn said Canada cannot afford to tolerate racism or harassment of any kind in the workplace.

Blackburn took his message to five cities across the country late last month, where he spoke of the government’s new Racism-Free Workplace Strategy, described as a program to educate Canadians about employment equity and its social and economic benefits.

As part of that strategy, the government is planning to hire nine racism officers. Three will work out of the strategy’s national headquarters in Ottawa to co-ordinate research and information. The other six will be stationed in Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax.

Gay Stinson, senior director at the Labour Standards and Workplace Equity office at Human Resources and Social Development Canada, said the job of the officers includes raising awareness about the benefits of integration, promoting best practices and helping employers find the resources needed to better integrate newcomers and visible minorities by tapping into available community resources.

“Employers don’t have the time or the staff to go searching for an immigration settlement project that may be funded this year but not next year,” she said. “We’re hoping with the idea of creating a network (with community resources), the potential is there for multiple benefits.”

The program has a budget of $13 million over five years. All employers, not just federally regulated ones, will be able to access the service, said Stinson.

Employment equity in 20th year

During his tour, Blackburn also referred to a legislative review of the Employment Equity Act scheduled for this fall.

“This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Employment Equity Act. I spoke in favour of the act at the time of its inception in 1986 and I remain a strong supporter. This milestone year is a time of celebration and reflection as to our accomplishments — it is a time to reaffirm our commitment to protecting the rights of all Canadians equally in the workplace,” he said.

Since the act’s inception, the representation of certain designated groups have been increasing in the workforce.

But academics who’ve studied this legislation have varying opinions on its effectiveness.

Harish Jain, an HR professor at McMaster University’s ¬DeGroote School of Business in Hamilton, said in a 2004 study that it’s mostly larger organizations where visible minorities are well-represented. In certain sectors covered by the federal legislation, such as transportation and communication, visible minorities remain under-represented.

They’re even more under-represented when it comes to middle- and senior-management positions, wrote Jain in the academic journal, Industrial Relations. His recommendations at the time included strengthening enforcement of the law, with a particular focus on smaller firms and firms in certain sectors.

But not everyone agrees all visible minority groups need the protection of employment equity legislation.

Wayne Simpson, head of the economics department at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, said a closer look at the numbers show that, other than black men and immigrants who are visible minorities, most visible minority groups have already achieved wage parity in the workplace.

“The implication of that is the focus of employment equity act per se may be misguided in the sense that there should be more emphasis on immigration integration,” said Simpson.

A similar legislative framework that’s applied to immigrants who belong to visible minority groups could be more effective, he said. (It probably can’t single out black men, however, without provoking a charter challenge, he added.)

He noted also that help could take the form of more resources into settlement programs.

‘A good exercise’

Included among a handful of employers that Blackburn recognized for its commitment to equity and workplace diversity was Michelin, a tire maker based in Laval, Que. Lise Patenaude, director of human resources for marketing and sales division Canada, said the requirements imposed by the legislation have helped the company continually improve its programs and policies.

“You can look at it as a burden, but we believe that this exercise of looking at your processes, your systems, your employment policies, as a good employer you need to do it regularly,” said Tatenaude. “This employment equity process forces you to do it, and it’s a lot of work. But it’s an excellent exercise and positive exercise for our management. I think every company should do it.”

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