Year 2000 had little to offer in workplace diversity and equity

On Oct. 3, the day of Pierre Trudeau’s funeral, I was in Calgary to conduct a briefing session on diversity “best practices” for clients and prospects. Like any good baby boomer practising work-life balance, I was up early and ordered tea delivered to my room at about 6:30 a.m. When the tea arrived, there was a red rose on the tray.

I decided to wear the rose on my lapel that day as a symbol of my regard and respect for the Canadian to whom we owe so much for his contribution to equality and inclusion.

My topic that day — diversity — was central to his thinking and contribution. It occurred to me how far-sighted Pierre Trudeau was in embracing multiculturalism, a fundamental concept of diversity, as a national value and policy 20 years before this issue made it to the corporate agenda — something it still hasn’t done in many organizations. While multiculturalism has its critics, it’s my own view that this policy has actually contributed to societal health and cohesion by increasing people’s sense of belonging and being valued for who they are. After all, we are all more effective when our behaviour is authentic and it’s so much easier to be a member of a community that shows that it wants you.

Even though I was in Calgary and people might have thought I was on dangerous ground in lauding the Prime Minister who brought in the National Energy Policy, I decided not to stereotype the audience. I decided to acknowledge the day’s event and the great legacy of our former Prime Minister. Besides, this was an audience of diversity practitioners who might be sympathetic to Trudeau’s equality rights record even if they disagreed with other parts of his policy platform.

I started out the session by acknowledging Trudeau’s singular contributions to the topic we were there to discuss — the policy of multiculturalism and our Charter of Rights and Freedoms in particular. The Charter has given Canadians access to substantive equality rights — equality before and under the law and the equal protection and benefit of the law, with additional specific guarantees of gender equality.

We can see its impact in employment directly in such areas as promoting equality for gays and lesbians and improving access to parental leave and benefits for men.

As participants introduced themselves, it was interesting and touching to experience what we were seeing on television and reading in the papers in the days following Trudeau’s death. Several people who were immigrants to Canada talked about the importance of Trudeau and his policy of multiculturalism in encouraging them to come to this country and in creating conditions where they could make a contribution. One woman, Canadian-born like me, came up at the end of the session and said how much she had appreciated and agreed with my observations about Trudeau.

At Trudeau’s funeral his great friend, Jacques Hebert, said Trudeau was a great admirer of Aristotle and of his belief that the main goal of society is to enable its members to lead full lives both individually and collectively.

Trudeau will certainly go down in history as someone whose contribution to this goal was immense and enduring and affected us no matter what our background or where we came from. Stephen Clarkson and Christina McCall in their memorable book about the former Prime Minister used the phrase “he haunts us still.” For me, and I’m sure many others, he haunts us in a positive way and he has left a legacy that has changed our lives in ways that are tangible.

As anyone who has read previous editions of this year-end column will know, I usually use it to dole out presents as well as lumps of coal for good and bad deeds in advancing equality and fairness throughout the year. This year the single most important event was certainly the passing of Pierre Trudeau. Next to this, all else pales.

The truth is that 2000, its status as the millennium year notwithstanding (not Trudeau’s favourite word when it came to his beloved charter), was anything but a banner year in the equality field. Employment equality issues did not figure prominently — and sometimes not at all — in the platforms of the major national parties.

The Liberals included several paeans to the value and strength of Canada’s diversity.

The NDP had the most extensive coverage, with specific platform sections for both women and aboriginal people.

The Canadian Alliance trotted out the bugbear about employment equity standing for quotas and pledged to restore merit-based employment practices, as though employment equality is a situation that exists for all Canadians rather than a goal we need to pursue. Their pledge of equality for all Canadians rang hollow given their characterization of employment equity and the leader’s track record in supporting the use of the “notwithstanding clause” during his tenure in the Alberta cabinet, in one case to oppose the extension of equality and non-discrimination rights on the basis of sexual orientation.

The year was marked by continued procedural wrangling over federal pay equity. Four years after the start of Tribunal hearings in the Bell Canada pay equity case, the issue is still tied up in courts. Canada Post has now joined, contesting the institutional independence of the Tribunal. Meanwhile, women (and male counterparts in their jobs) who most likely deserve pay equity settlements (at least according to Bell’s own study) continue to wait. Surely there is a better way to resolve these issues.

On a somewhat more positive note, following studies that showed that new moms were rushing back to work from maternity leave as soon as their Employment Insurance benefits expired, the federal government has extended parental leave with the result that maternity benefits are now available, following a two-week waiting period, for 15 weeks, after which parental leave benefits are available for 35 weeks.

This is a significant extension on the current 10-week allowance. There is a catch, however, in that women — and men who take parental leave — will only be able to take the additional leave with job protection if provincial legislation is amended to extend leave periods. So far, only British Columbia, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Ontario have moved to do this, the latter only reluctantly. Quebec already had such provisions in place.

Although I am sympathetic to employers’ concerns about the length of the leave and the difficulty of finding staff replacements it may, in fact, be easier to replace someone a year at a time than a few months at a time.

We also have to consider the benefits to society of allowing new parents to spend more time with their babies if they want to and if they can afford to.

Finally, the federal government in an omnibus bill amended several laws, including the Income Tax Act and the federal Pension Benefits Standards Act, is extending both benefits and obligations to same-sex as well as opposite-sex couples. Among other things, this removes obstacles to providing spousal benefits to same-sex partners.

As I said, it wasn’t a banner year in the equality field. The election itself was rather negative. Some gains — such as the federal amending bill on same-sex issues — came grudgingly. It wouldn’t take too much for 2001 to be more positive.

Lynne Sullivan is a senior consultant with Towers Perrin in Toronto. For more information contact (416) 960-2700.

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