Taking Positive Steps: Equity Initiatives

AuthorColleen Sheppard
Taking Positive Steps:
Euity Initiatives
Syemic discrimination reires syemic remedies.
— JuDge rosaLie siLBerman aBeLLa, equaLity in empLoyment,
royaL commission report, 19841
   exclusion, inequality, and injustice help us
to understand why equity initiatives are important components of
anti-discrimination law. This chapter does not focus on a specif‌ic
individual story; rather, it explores a range of dif‌ferent types of pro-
active equity initiatives and the underlying justif‌ications for them.
Equity initiatives are designed to remedy and to prevent discrimina-
tion by breaking cycles of historic and ongoing discrimination. They
are borne of the realization that addressing discrimination retro-
actively on an individual case-by-case basis is an inadequate response
to problems that are systemic, pervasive, and entrenched.
I begin by tracing the historical development of equity initatives
in the employment and educational context. I then outline the def‌in-
ing features of an expansive approach to equity initiatives. On the
basis of this broad def‌inition of equity programs, I assess the ways in
which such initiatives respond to both the historical inequalities and
the current realities of systemic discrimination.
Discrimination stories
The Development of Eity Initiatives and
Armative Aion
Hiorical Preferential Treatment Policies
Some of the earliest preferential policy initiatives in Canada involved
a number of special programs for returning veterans. Beginning in
the aftermath of World War I, special veterans’ preferences in land
grants for farming, bank loans, and access to educational retrain-
ing were provided. In addition, veteran hiring preferences in the
federal public service were introduced in 1918.2 These preferences
also advanced the rights of persons with disabilities, since many of
the veterans had been disabled in war. Most people did not question
the fairness of these special benef‌its and preferences for returning
veterans. Because they risked their lives, and in many cases were
permanently disabled, veterans were, and still are, generally viewed
as deserving of some reciprocal benef‌its to recognize their sacrif‌ices.
This continuing chapter in our history provides important insights
into why preferential treatment initiatives seem justif‌ied.3 It also
relates to current challenges faced by people with disabilities seek-
ing equitable access to the workplace.4
A second wave of preferential hiring policies emerged in the
1960s and involved ef‌forts to increase the hiring of Francophones in
the federal civil service, particularly in upper level positions. In 1962,
the Royal Commission on Government Organization recommended
that the “federal government adopt active measures to develop bilin-
gual capacities among its employees on a selective basis” and “inten-
sify its ef‌forts to attract and retain more of the highly qualif‌ied young
people of French Canada capable of advancement to senior ranks.5
A few years later, in 1967, the Royal Commission on Biculturalism
and Bilingualism again identif‌ied under-representation in the fed-
eral civil service as a major problem:
Other countries with two languages and cultures have seen clearly
there can be no equal partnership without the active participation
of both cultures in their administrations [i.e. public service]. Such
participation rarely, if ever, develops on its own . . . it is usually the

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