Mr. Speaker, I would never have dreamed that the day would come when I would have to argue on the relevance of the Employment Equity Act.
To begin with a brief historical review, the Employment Equity Act was assented to in December 1995, and became law in October 1996. It reinforced and replaced another act with the same name, passed in 1986. We can, therefore, say that we have had employment equity legislation for about 10 years. That said, I would like to point out that Canada was behind the times, even when the first legislation was passed, when it came to concrete measures in this area.
Let us recall that the purpose of the legislation was “to achieve equality in the work place so that no person shall be denied employment opportunities or benefits for reasons unrelated to ability”. It tends to correct the conditions of disadvantage in employment experienced by four designated groups: women, aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities.
The act applies to private sector employers who are under federal regulation, Crown agencies with fewer than 100 employees, and the public service. The main sectors affected are banks, communications, and international and interprovincial transportation.
The tabling in 1984 of the report of the Abella commission on employment equity laid the foundations for the present equity policies. The Abella Report spoke, among other things, of the need to pass special measures to guarantee everyone equal opportunity, regardless of their sex, race, ethnic origin or handicap.
The figures available indicate that the legislation is producing results. Experts agree that the gap is beginning to close. Although the percentage increase is small, we can see a stronger representation of all the groups. Some gains cannot be denied, including those made by women and by visible minorities in the private sector. The act has not produced the same results across the board, but progress has been noted.
Obviously, the public service is not yet a totally equitable workplace for all of the four designated groups. Clearly there is quite a way to go yet. One thing is for sure, however. We will not improve things by revoking the act.
I would like to quote the latest annual report of the Human Rights Commission, which states, and I quote:
The notions of employment equity and equal pay for work of equal value are not some bureaucratic add-ons to our anti-discrimination laws; they are among the most effective proofs that we mean what we say where equality and fairness are concerned.
What party in this House can boast of not defending a notion as fundamental as that of equality? I would remind you that equality does not involve only healthy white men. No way. The dictionary defines equality as the enjoyment of equal rights and equality before the law. Equality is a fundamental principle in any self-respecting society. This principle must be more than just wishful thinking; it must be accompanied by specific measures, and the Employment Equity Act is one such measure.
According to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, the combination of programs and initiatives can produce significant results. Furthermore, beyond the legislation, there are things like public awareness, vigilance and most importantly agreement by all representatives of the people on the need to ensure fair access to work.
Each and every one of us in this House represents women, aboriginal peoples, visible minorities and people with disabilities, too. This motion's sponsor seems to think that the act was designed to replace one form of discrimination by another, when it was in fact designed to correct injustices in employment at the federal level. In addition, there is no mention anywhere in this act of imposed quotas.
I would like to quote from a speech made in October 1995 by a member of the Reform Party at third reading of Bill C-64 on employment equity, a bill which his party opposed.
Speaking on the principle of the bill, the hon. member stated, and I quote:
The foundation is that somehow or other Canadians are a mean, regressive, racist, discriminating people. Canadians are nothing of the sort. We are not like that. No such discrimination exists in the workplace.
Either this is naivety, pure and simple, or they are completely denying the problem and hiding their heads in the sand. Take your pick. If there is any member who believes that no such discrimination exists in the workplace, I suggest he take off his tie, put on a skirt and then try to get a job when an employer has a choice between him and an equally skilled guy wearing a tie. Good luck and welcome to the real world.
I wonder what gives this motion's sponsor the right to contravene as fundamental a principle as equity, and particularly to go against the advice of stakeholders and experts who agree that concrete action is necessary.
I know that the Reform Party thinks the market, not the government, should determine how things work in the workplace. It is a matter of ideology. On the other hand, he cannot be against the purpose of equal treatment, which is what this act is all about. I do hope each and every one of us is in favour of equity, and that we only differ on the means of achieving it.
Of course, this kind of motion does not come as a surprise from a party that wrote in its program that a Reform government would put an end to federal affirmative action and employment equity programs. That is outrageous. I am surprised however at their lack of imagination, since an almost identical motion was presented by the same party on May 30, 1995. What imagination!
To conclude my comments against the notion that the Employment Equity Act is costly, unnecessary and in contravention of the merit principle with respect to hiring, let me stress that the act is a protective measure against systematic discrimination. We must be proactive.
How can it be claimed that an act is unnecessary when even the Canadian Human Rights Commission says the contrary? How can it be said it is costly when it gives one of society's poorest segments fair access to employment? And how can it be claimed that it contravenes the merit principle with respect to hiring when it expressly applies to people with equal skills?
Beyond the numbers, there is the human factor. For many if not most people, work is much more than a way to earn a living. It is a way to realize their potential and improve their self-esteem. Dignity is priceless.
Hon. members should remember that to be tolerant is to respect differences.