Policy brief 1: Defining and expanding equity groups

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How to define and modernize the Employment Equity Act’s designated groups?


Historical context

The 1984 report from the Royal Commission of Inquiry on Equality in Employment, informed the 1986 Employment Equity Act (the Act). It was presided by Justice Rosalie Abella. Please see the Overview and Backgrounder for context on the origins of the 4 designated groups.

The Commission’s mandate was to “inquire into the most efficient, effective and equitable means of promoting employment opportunities, eliminating systemic discrimination and assisting all individuals to compete for employment opportunities on an equal basis”.Footnote 1

It focused on 4 groups that were identified as targets of systemic disadvantages within the workforce:

Since the adoption of the Act in 1986, and subsequent amendments, the 4 designated groups did not change.

Current context

Changing terminology

There have been changes in the language that the Government of Canada and key stakeholders use to describe designated groups. In addition, general understandings of identity and discrimination have evolved. Due to these changes, there may be a need to:

Related initiatives

Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) recently launched the 50-30 Challenge – Your Diversity Advantage to mobilize the business, philanthropic and non-for-profit sectors to improve access to leadership roles within corporate boards for women, racialized persons, people who identify as LGBTQ2, people living with disabilities, as well as First Nations, Inuit and Métis.Footnote 5

ISED mandated the Standards Council of Canada (SCC), in partnership with the Ryerson University Diversity Institute (RUDY), to advance this work. The goal is to consult with key stakeholders in order to establish common understandings of equity language and standards. To this end:


Equity group names and definitions

The names and definitions of equity groups have not changed since the adoption of the Act in 1986. In general, in reviewing the names and definitions of current designated groups, consideration should be given to the impact that new names or definitions could have on the implementation of the employment equity framework and its results. For example, there may be an impact on the nature and scope of data collection, for employers and government. Below are key considerations specific to each designated group.


A definition for “women” is not included in the Act. Since the adoption of the Act in 1986, understandings of sex and gender have evolved and now denote 2 separate personal characteristics. Gender expression refers to the various ways in which people choose to express their gender identity. A person’s gender expression may not align with society’s beliefs of gender and, therefore, may not be a reliable indicator of a person’s gender identity.Footnote 6

Gender identity is an internal and deeply felt sense of being a man or woman, both or neither. A person’s gender identity may or may not align with the gender typically associated with their sex.Footnote 7

Following the adoption of the 2017 amendments to the Canadian Human Rights Act, it provides explicit protections to Canadians on the grounds of gender identity and gender expression. The Government of Canada is currently reviewing its policies, processes and practices to consider impacts on transgender, non-binary and two-spirit people in Canada. The Government’s aim is to adopt a new approach regarding sex and gender information. Part of this work includes how federal departments collect, use and display information on sex and gender.Footnote 8

Indigenous Peoples

The Act currently uses the outdated term “Aboriginal peoples”Footnote 9, defined as “Indians, Inuit or Métis”.Footnote 10 There may also be a need to review the French language term, “autochtone”.

The Government of Canada recognizes that “Indigenous Peoples” are not homogenous. It has also acknowledged the need for a distinctions-based approach to acknowledge and affirm the unique rights, interests and circumstances of First Nations peoples, Inuit and Métis citizens. A distinctions-based approach recognizes that Indigenous peoples of Canada consist of distinct, rights-bearing communities with their own histories, including with the Crown.Footnote 11 These communities may be located in urban, rural, remote, Northern and/or self-governing areas.Footnote 12

There is a need to modernize the Act’s terminology regarding Indigenous Peoples.Footnote 13

Persons with disabilities

Currently, the Act defines persons with disabilities as persons “who have a long-term or recurring physical, mental, sensory, psychiatric or learning impairment and who:

  1. consider themselves to be at a disadvantage in employment because of that impairment, or
  2. believe that an employer or potential employer is likely to consider them to be at a disadvantage in employment because of that impairment. It also includes persons whose functional limitations owing to their impairment have been accommodated in their current job or workplace”Footnote 14

However, the 2019 Accessible Canada Act provides for a broader definition of persons with disabilities. “It includes permanent, temporary or episodic disabilities, whether they are evident, or not”. Footnote 15

Statistics Canada’s definition of persons with disabilities has evolved and, in turn, the organization has adapted data collection for this designated group. While necessary, frequent changes to the definition of disability make it challenging to compare employment outcomes for persons with disabilities over time, since the data collection and analytical baselines shift. In addition, there are variations in how provincial and territorial governments define disability.

In addition, the World Health Organization (WHO), of which Canada is a member, has adopted a broader definition for disability. WHO defines disabilities as “an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure. An activity limitation is a difficulty faced by a person in performing a task or action. While a participation restriction is a problem faced by a person in involvement in life situations.”Footnote 16

While the French version of the Act refers to “personnes handicapées”, understandings of disabilities have evolved since the adoption of the Act. However, the language seems inconsistent across jurisdictions.Footnote 17 For example:

Greater uniformity in terminology and understandings across federal legislation could provide grounds for a more coordinated government effort in breaking down barriers faced by persons with disabilities.

Visible minorities

The Act defines members of visible minorities as “persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour.”Footnote 20 In 1984, the term “visible minorities” was a way to acknowledge and group together people facing discriminatory barriers to employment due to visible characteristics.Footnote 21

However, the federal Government recognizes that “visible minorities” are not homogenous and have different labour market experiences and challenges.Footnote 22 In addition, this term may not reflect reality in some cities or communities where groups described as visible minorities may actually demographically be the majority.Footnote 23

Stakeholders have raised concerns with the term, including the limitations the term creates. They mask different lived experiences, understanding of one’s self, identities, and labour market outcomes for the various sub-groups within the category. For example, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination recommended that Canada revisit the term “visible minorities.” Stakeholders echoed this during consultations on the Government of Canada’s Anti-Racism Strategy for 2019 to 2022.Footnote 24

Within public discourse and Government, language that is increasingly being used as an alternative to the term “visible minorities” includes “racialized persons”, “Black and racialized persons” and “Black, Indigenous and People of Colour” (BIPOC).

In this vein, the Government of Canada also recognizes the prevalence of racism and discrimination (see Overview and Backgrounder for key definitions and glossary). The Government recently established the Federal Anti-Racism Secretariat housed within the Department of Canadian Heritage to address these issues.Footnote 25 Discrimination, including systemic racism, are persistent barriers to employment (and advancement) for members of racialized groups and religious minority communities.

As part of the Government of Canada’s Anti-Racism Strategy,Footnote 26 Statistics Canada is increasing available disaggregated race-based data by oversampling Statistics Canada's 2020 General Social Survey – Social Identity.Footnote 27 Collecting disaggregated data based on race will help to better understand the lived experiences of ethno-cultural groups with regard to socio-economic participation and the justice system.Footnote 28 The survey is also analyzing new and existing inclusion and exclusion data to better understand the lived experiences of ethno-cultural groups with regard to socio-economic participation.Footnote 29 In addition, Statistics Canada is expanding the General Social Survey on Social Identity in order to collect data and analyze experiences of ethno-cultural groups.Footnote 30

The Federal Anti-Racism Secretariat has developed a demographic questionnaire to assist governmental organizations in gathering and collecting self-reported data of racialized persons (see Annex 1- Federal Anti-Racism Secretariat Demographic List). While recognizing that identity language and terms change over time, the list offers a sense of how racialized persons may self-identify. By focusing on self-identification, the data collected takes into account individual agency or choice and self-determination by using terms and language that people use to define/describe themselves. This is an important consideration when determining labels that become enshrined legal frameworks.

Diversity and intersectionality within the designated groups

The Government of Canada adopted the Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+) analytical tool to pinpoint the gendered and intersectional impact of government policies and programs.Footnote 31 The Act established the 4 designated groups before the Government of Canada adopted this analytical lens. There is need to account for these changes. In addition to adopting a GBA+ analytical framework, the Government has built institutional capacity on the issue.

The Government of Canada recently established the Department of Women and Gender Equality (WAGE). Their mandate is to fulfill key commitments that advance gender equality, address diversity and inclusion and grow the economy.

In addition, the Government recently created the Ministry of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth in the Department of Canadian Heritage. Their recent mandate includes applying and considering public policies through an intersectional lens in order to address systemic inequities faced by all vulnerable populations, including:

There is an absence of disaggregated data on specific employment challenges or relative successes for populations within designated groups, as well as at the intersections of such groups. Data unavailability makes it difficult to ascertain how umbrella terms can mask differences in experiences and barriers faced by sub-groups within the 4 designated groups:

Inclusion of additional equity groups

In its departmental evaluation of Employment Equity programs, Employment and Social Development Canada observed that the Department could review the current designated groups. The Department could also expand the designated groups to better reflect recent labour market trends.Footnote 33 Specifically, the evaluation recommended exploring the inclusion of members of the LGBTQ2 communities, youth, seniors, veterans and immigrants as designated groups.Footnote 34

Some researchers have also suggested expanding designated groups to recognize the reality of the multiple and intersecting identities that impact employment, including barriers for religious minorities.Footnote 35 Labour stakeholders Footnote 36 have also asked the Government of Canada to expand coverage to include members from the LGBTQ2 communitiesFootnote 37, who may face systemic barriers and discrimination (inequalities based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression).

Below are some considerations for including additional groups under the Act.


LGBTQ2 community stakeholders have called for the inclusion of a distinct equity group under the Act representing sexual and gender-diverse minorities, given the historical and ongoing discrimination against members of this group in the workplace. This history includes systemic and state-sanctioned discrimination until 1993 (that is, through the LGBT “Purge” which took place in the federal public service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian Armed Forces).Footnote 38

As recently as 2020, Egale Canada, a leading LGBTQ2 rights advocate, estimated that 1 out of 3 (30%) employees identifying as LGBTQ2 in Canada reported experiencing discrimination in the workplace, and the same proportion of workers who are open about their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, leave their workplace because they feel unwelcomed or unsupported by management.Footnote 39

While there is growing evidence of ongoing discrimination against LGBTQ2 workers, there is limited data and research available to measure the extent of its effects on employment, wages and opportunities.Footnote 40 The current labour market information on LGBTQ2 persons in CanadaFootnote 41 does not provide the information required to produce baseline statistics on the barriers in employment that members face, as well as statistics on their availability in the Canadian workforce.

However, efforts to improve data and research on LGBTQ2 labour market outcomes have grown. Following the 2016 Census, Statistics Canada consulted experts, academics and LGBTQ2 communities to understand the needs and challenges associated with producing reliable data on the transgender and non-binary populations living in Canada.Footnote 42 In 2018, Statistics Canada released a new standard on gender, a revised standard on sex at birth, and has implemented a question on gender in many of its data collection vehicles in order to fill data gaps.Footnote 43 These new standards will be implemented through the 2021 Census.

In 2019, the Government committed to implementing the first federal whole-of-government LGBTQ2 action plan with the goal to improve social, health and economic outcomes for LGBTQ2 people in the country.Footnote 44 As part of this initiative, one of the key issues being studied by the LGBTQ2 Secretariat is the current employment and workplace situation of LGBTQ2 people. The Government launched the LGBTQ2 Secretariat’s national LGBTQ2 survey in order “to better understand the daily realities and experiences of LGBTQ2 people in Canada”.Footnote 45 The survey was conducted from November 27, 2020 to February 28, 2021 and will provide employment and workplace findings from over 27,000 LGBTQ2 respondents.


The transition from school to work remains the major challenge for many youth, where employment barriers persist.
For example, the percentage of youth employed in full-time or permanent jobs has fallen since the early 2000s. On the other hand, that of the total working age population has remained rather stable.Footnote 46


A Parliamentary Committee that reviewed the Act in 2001 concluded that seniors were not a disadvantaged group in the labour market.Footnote 47 However, since then, understandings of challenges that seniors face in employment and in the workplace have evolved.

Difficulties faced by seniors stem from a number of barriers to employment, and include:

Caregivers, worker-carersFootnote 49

While roughly 35% of Canadian workers now provide care to a family member or friend,Footnote 50 this number is expected to grow, based on the country’s aging population. Despite a shift in cultural norms that has seen men shoulder more of the burden of domestic work and childcare than in the past, women continue to carry out much of care work.Footnote 51 Caregivers or worker-carers face a number of barriers, including:


Since the late 1990s, the Government of Canada has improved the benefits and services provided to Canadian Armed Forces personnel in order to help their transition towards a civilian life.Footnote 53

However, some sub-groups of veterans face specific challenges as they transition into the labour market. For example, veterans with fewer years of service have higher unemployment rates, and women veterans have lower employment rates than their male counterparts.Footnote 54 Moreover, compared to the Canadian average, veterans in general face more activity restrictions at work often linked with disability.Footnote 55


Immigrants, especially recent immigrants, face a number of barriers to employment, including:

These challenges translate into employment gaps between immigrants and Canadian born workers in the labour market.Footnote 57 For example, while visible minorities born in Canada earn employment incomes comparable to that of non-visible minorities, non-Canadian-born visible minorities earn on average $4,900 less than Canadian-born visible minorities. Also, non-Canadian-born visible minorities have lower rates of labour market participation and employment compared to Canadian-born visible minorities and non-visible minorities.

Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on equity groups

The COVID-19 pandemic has adversely impacted Canada’s economy, vulnerable Canadians, and members of the designated groups under the Act:Footnote 58


This document has outlined some background and considerations that the Employment Equity Act Review Task Force can take into account as its members engage stakeholders on the issue of defining equity groups and modernizing terms used in the Act.

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