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Wednesday, September 22, 1999Some more equal than others
The controversy generated by the decision to exclude male candidates from application for faculty positions in psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University has highlighted a growing trend. Discrimination in university appointments is routine, institutionalized and easily measured. Women graduating with a PhD are twice as likely to secure academic appointment as their male counterparts. No figures are available on the success of those who can boast the so-called double disadvantage of race and gender, but a number of universities have removed the requirement for a PhD for those able to offer the right biological combination.
Canadian human rights legislation, backed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, is widely believed to outlaw such crass discrimination in employment. In fact, under the pretext of redressing disadvantage, it mandates it. The Wilfrid Laurier job ad attracted a complaint from Clive Seligman, a University of Western Ontario psychology professor, who requested an investigation by the Ontario Human Rights Commission. The commission, however, had already discussed the restrictive hiring policy with the university prior to the position being advertised. In any case, in the view of Keith Norton, the chief commissioner, the commission has "little jurisdiction" over such complaints since any employer could rely on the defence of favouring disadvantaged groups -- industry parlance for anyone who is not an able-bodied white male.
Professor Seligman has questioned what disadvantage women with PhDs are presumed to face, but in Canadian human rights legislation disadvantage is innate in group membership, not determined by empirical investigation.
Canada's human rights commissions have sanctioned increasingly aggressive preferential recruitment. The University of British Columbia law faculty has resolved to bar able-bodied white male applicants from senior positions. This might surprise those who had listened to the assurances of UBC's associate vice-president equity (sic), Sharon Kahn, who has categorically assured the public that "merit is the foundation and guiding principle of all hiring activities."
It did not, however, surprise the B.C. Human Rights Commission, which dismissed my complaint on the grounds the commission had given prior approval to the law faculty's plan and "therefore the advertisement of which you complain would not constitute discrimination." In short, according to the commission's highly paid staff, discrimination is not discrimination if they authorize it.
UBC's lawyers had no hesitation in acknowledging that the university's employment policies "may result in preference being given to one of the four designated groups over white males." This is reassuringly frank. It does, however, highlight the institutional mendacity that is evident in UBC's recruitment adverts: "UBC hires on the basis of merit."
Nationally, the Canadian Human Rights Commission has been equally aggressive in pursuing preferential hiring, its favourite target the federal public service. The commission's meretricious use of statistics is legendary, exemplified in a report that purported to document the extensive barriers faced by visible minorities seeking appointment and promotion to the public service. The study made no attempt to construct a representative sample, allowing any disgruntled employee to sign up. Among the many inflammatory charges were the supposed barriers to promotion faced by visible minorities, an issue "uppermost in the minds" of nearly all. This was a surprising finding since comprehensive data indicate visible minorities receive precisely the share of promotions their numbers would suggest.
Six years ago the revelation that Ontario's Rae government had posted a recruitment notice for a senior position with the province's Management Board that excluded white males from application created an uproar and forced the government to backtrack.
Today, spurred on by the CHRC, the Canadian government is posting an increasing number of restricted eligibility competitions. The Department of Canadian Heritage is recruiting an "advisor, Canadian identity," to work in its Montreal office. The job specification is vague, but there is no ambiguity about the biological requirement; only members of a visible minority will be considered. In Saskatoon, Revenue Canada is more expansive -- the position of tax auditor is open to anyone, providing they are not white and able-bodied.
The human rights industry long since mastered George Orwell's "doublethink" -- holding "two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them." It comes, then, as no surprise to read CHRC assurances in its annual report that there can be no "reverse discrimination" or "the substitution of one form of discrimination for another."
Martin Loney's most recent book is The Pursuit of Division: Race, Gender and Preferential Hiring in Canada.
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