Dignity and Equality

AuthorAlan Borovoy
chapter eleven
Dignity and Equality
To begin this chapter, I f‌ind it useful to quote from one of my
recent books:
Democracy is the only system in this world that puts a premium on
human dignity. Even though people differ in all kinds of ways, for ex-
ample, in ethnicity, proclivity, and even ability, the democratic system
considers them equal in dignity.1
Not surprisingly, therefore, a sizeable amount of my activity and that
of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) focused directly on
the threats to dignity and equality faced by many of our fellow citizens.
We had occasion to go after our state institutions for both the hurt they
presumed to inf‌lict and the help they declined to provide.
Race, Religion, and Ethnicity
By the time I left the Labour Committee, a lot had been accom-
plished in the f‌ield of human rights, particularly in race and ethnic
relations. Virtually every jurisdiction in Canada had laws against such
discrimination in employment, public accommodations, public licens-
ing, and housing. Moreover, virtually every jurisdiction had a human
“at the barricades”
rights commission with full-time staff to administer, enforce, and edu-
cate with respect to these laws.
Needless to say, my interest in racial and ethnic relations did not ex-
pire with my departure from the Labour Committee. But, with changes
in the nature of the problems, there had to be commensurate changes
in the way I addressed those problems. I began to learn, for example,
that a signif‌icant amount of job discrimination was being practised by
employment agencies. Numbers of employers who wanted to avoid hir-
ing certain minorities would delegate such dirty work to these agen-
cies. Minority group members who sought employment through these
agencies would typically have no way to know when they were being
improperly passed over. After all, they would have no way to know the
identity of the agencies’ customers.
Over the years, therefore, I instigated a number of surveys into how
various employment agencies would react to discriminatory job orders.
During the fall of 1980, for example, CCLA telephoned twenty-f‌ive ran-
domly chosen employment agencies across the country in Halifax, To-
ronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. In each case, our tester posed as the
representative of an American f‌irm that was planning to locate rather soon
in that community. In the course of the discussion, which was ostensibly
designed to f‌ind out what kind of services the agency would perform, our
tester asked whether the agency would agree to screen out non-whites.
Only three of the tested agencies expressly refused; f‌ive responded
in rather vague terms but did not refuse; in seventeen cases, there was
no doubt about their willingness to comply. Indeed, many of them ex-
pressed considerable enthusiasm for the assignment. Here are some of
the replies:
“I’m a businessman . . . if you don’t want a black, we don’t send
a black. If you don’t want any Indians, we don’t send you any In-
dians. . . . My business is to make a placement and make some
money. I’m going to send you what you want.”
• “So it’s white and bright.”
• “Well, that’s why you go through an agency.”
“I like to get it from my clients right up front. . . . If they don’t
want non-white people, well heaven’s sake, tell me right now and
I won’t send you non-white people.”
Chapter Eleven: Dignity and Equality
The results were broadcast f‌irst on CTV’s W5 and subsequently
picked up by a number of other media. In the aftermath of the publi-
city, CCLA in Halifax, Toronto, and Winnipeg pressed their respective
governments for follow-up action. Most of the affected governments
at least wrote to the employment agencies and reminded them of their
obligations under the law. In Ontario, the response was somewhat more
aggressive. We called on the minister of labour to launch a program of
auditing the employment agencies irrespective of whether complaints
had been f‌iled. The minister announced that he intended to recom-
mend that the law be amended to require the agencies to keep fuller
records of their activities so as to render the agencies more amenable
to auditing procedures.
The more I learned and ref‌lected on the issue of racial and ethnic
discrimination, the more I began to encounter a largely unaddressed
problem: systemic barriers. The clue to the existence of this problem
was the apparently widespread inequities we found in various sectors
of the economy. Despite the fact that human rights legislation had been
on the books since the early 1950s, we discovered numbers of situa-
tions in which racial minorities were hardly in evidence.
At some point in the 1970s, one of my executive members told me
that he had never seen a non-white f‌iref‌ighter in the city of Toronto. Of
course, I did not know how many f‌ires my colleague was in the habit
of attending. But his observations obviously required further investiga-
tion. I set out, therefore, to learn how many non-white f‌iref‌ighters there
actually were in Toronto.
Of course, the f‌irst problem was: How do you get that kind of infor-
mation? I could just imagine that if we had telephoned the f‌ire depart-
ment and asked them directly, they would likely have told us to get lost.
So, we came up with a ruse. Our researcher telephoned all twenty-seven
f‌ire stations then existing in Toronto and told them that he was the
adult leader of a group of young people whom he wished to take on
a visit to their respective f‌ire stations. But, since he had some visible
minorities in his group, he wanted to take them there when one of their
visible minority f‌iref‌ighters was on duty. (For those who might balk at
such deceptions, I am reminded of the Anglican priest who once told
me that, when you are doing God’s work, you are entitled to be as wise
as a serpent.)

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