Overview of policy issues and background - Employment Equity Act review
On this page
- Purpose of the overview and backgrounder
- Understanding the intent of the Act
- Employment Equity Act: Historical background
- The purpose of the review
- Annex 1 – Glossary
- Annex 2 – List of acronyms
Purpose of the overview and backgrounder
This is an overview and backgrounder document for the following 3 policy issue briefs:
- defining and expanding equity groups (Policy brief 1): how to modernize and define Employment Equity Act designated groups
- better supporting equity groups (Policy brief 2): how to better support equity groups protected under the Employment Equity Act, and
- accountability, compliance, enforcement and public reporting of employment equity (Policy brief 3): how to improve accountability, compliance, enforcement and public reporting for employment equity
The briefing materials provide context and information to members of the Employment Equity Act Review Task Force (Task Force). While recognizing that the Employment Equity Act (the Act) is not the only way the federal government advances employment equity for Canadians, these briefing materials focus on the Act given the Terms of Reference of the Task Force.
Since the adoption of the Employment Equity Act in 1986 (amended in 1995), there has been meaningful progress towards equity in employment. However, designated groups (women, Indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities) covered by the Act continue to experience employment barriers.
Therefore, briefing materials recognize past foundations, present successes, but also look to improve the future.
This overview of policy issues and background provides information on:
- the intent of the Act
- its key milestones, and
- the reasons for undertaking its review
It also contains a glossary of definitions currently used by the Government and useful to establish a common understanding of key equity concepts.
Understanding the intent of the Act
Under the Canadian Human Rights Acts (1977) and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom (1982), everyone is entitled to exercise their fundamental rights under conditions of equality and non-discrimination. However, systemic barriers may prevent certain individuals or groups of individuals from fully exercising their rights like other members of society.
This is when equity comes into play. Equity consists of recognizing differences within groups of individuals. In addition, it requires using this understanding to take proactive measures to remove systemic barriers. This is to achieve substantive equality in all aspects of a person's life.
Also, workers in Canada have the right to be treated fairly in workplaces that are free from discrimination. The Act is one way the Government of Canada promotes workplace equity in the federally regulated private sector and the federal public service.
The purpose of the Act is:
- “to achieve equality in the workplace so that no person shall be denied employment opportunities or benefits for reasons unrelated to ability and, in the fulfilment of that goal, to correct the conditions of disadvantage in employment experienced by women, Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities by giving effect to the principle that employment equity means more than treating persons in the same way but also requires special measures and the accommodation of differences”.Footnote 1
Recognizing that systemic discrimination calls for systemic remedies, the Act has 2 complementary goals:
- to remove barriers that prevent the designated groups from employment opportunities or benefits, and
- to correct underrepresentation of members of designated groups in the workplaceFootnote 2
Thus, the Act is designed to create equitable workplaces and combat systemic discrimination by requiring employers to:
- analyze their human resources systems, policies and practices
- identify barriers, develop and implement a plan to remove these barriers and correct underrepresentation, and
- be held accountable for results
This proactive approach recognizes the systemic realities of sexism, racism, and ableism. In addition, it places the onus on employers to identify and rectify them where they occur.
Employment Equity Act: Historical background
Key milestones are discussed in chronological order below as per the Timeline of the milestones of the Act.
- Employment Equity Act 1986
- First Parliamentary Review 1992
- Employment Equity Act 1995
- Second Parliamentary Review 2001 to 2002
- Changes to the Federal Contractors Program 2013
- Pay Transparency Measures 2021
Employment Equity Act of 1986
In 1983, Lloyd Axworthy, then Minister of Employment and Immigration in the Liberal Government of Pierre Trudeau, set up the Royal Commission of Inquiry on Equality in Employment(the “Abella Commission”). The Commission led to a 1984 report outlining the historical and systemic barriers to employment faced by 4 designated groups (women, Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities, and members of visible minorities).
In 1985, Flora MacDonald, then Minister of Employment and Immigration in the Progressive Conservative Government of Brian Mulroney, responded to the Commission’s recommendations by tabling Bill C-62, An Act Respecting Employment Equity. Bill C-62 was passed in the House of Commons on April 23, 1986.The Employment Equity Act was ratified by the Senate and received royal assent on June 27, 1986.
The adoption of the Employment Equity Act of 1986 reflected a bipartisan consensus on the need for employment equity. At its core, the Act’s purpose is to break down systemic barriers leading to discrimination in the workplace. This is so that no person would be denied employment opportunities for reasons unrelated to ability. Its purpose is also to allow for all workers in Canada to contribute evenly to the economic and social well-being of all Canadians.
First parliamentary review (1992)
In 1992, a parliamentary report on the Employment Equity Act of 1986 was released. The report was based on findings from the Redway Commission. Alan Redway, then Member of Parliament and Minister of State for Housing, was Chairman. It examined how the Act of 1986 could be improved.
Employment Equity Act of 1995
The Act was amended in 1995. The new federal Employment Equity Act of 1995, which came into force in 1996, included many of the recommendations from the Redway Commission.
As a result, the previous legislation was strengthened in a number of ways. Most notably, the new Act:
- expanded the Employment Equity Act’s coverage by including federal government employers, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Canadian Armed Forces
- required that employers develop and implement an equity plan that includes short term numerical goals. This is for the hiring and promotion of members of designated groups, and
- designated the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) as the enforcement agency of the new Act. This gives the CHRC the power to issue decisions that are enforceable as court orders
Second parliamentary review (2001 to 2002)
On December 3, 2001, the House of Commons adopted the motion that the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of the Persons with Disabilities (HUMA) conduct a review of the Act of 1995. The Committee published its report in June 2002. The report put forward a set of 29 recommendations to improve employment equity in the federal jurisdiction.
The recommendations covered a number of topics, including the Act’s coverage, employer obligations, definitions and data, compliance and administration. The recommendations aimed to refine key parts of the Act, as opposed to fully redesigning the existing employment equity model. As a result, the changes to the Act that followed were not as outstanding as those made in 1995 following the Redway Commission.
In the years that followed the review, many non-legislative initiatives were introduced that addressed the recommendations. These included program investments aimed at improving education and awareness, increasing engagement, and leading to better outcomes for members of designated groups.
Changes to the Federal Contractors Program (2013)
Since the Standing Committee published its report in 2002, the most notable changes to federal employment equity policy were amendments to the Federal Contractors Program (FCP), which came into force in 2013.
Following a 2012 Strategic Review of the Act, mentions of FCP employer requirements were removed from the legislation. Moreover, the threshold for goods and services contracts covered by the FCP was raised from $200,000 to $1,000,000. In addition, FCP requirements were reduced to 4 key elements:
- survey the workforce
- conduct a workforce analysis
- establish goals, and
- make reasonable efforts in order to achieve reasonable progress
New pay transparency measures (2021)
As of January 1, 2021, federally regulated private sector employers covered by the Act are required to report their salary data using new methodology introduced by amendments to the Employment Equity Regulations. They must report in a way that shows aggregated wage gap information. Beginning June 1, 2022, employers will be required to include this new salary data as part of their annual reporting on employment equity.
These new pay transparency measures aim to raise awareness of wage gaps faced by members of designated groups working in federally regulated workplaces. By making employer wage gap data publically available, the Government of Canada expects these measures to:
- help reduce wage gaps
- shift business culture and expectations toward greater equality, and
- lead to better outcomes for workers and their families
The purpose of the review
Since the Act passed in 1986, some progress has been made in creating equitable workplaces, but inequities persist. The designated groups continue to experience barriers to employment. Meanwhile, key economic and social changes have occurred since the Act was originally adopted. The following have highlighted important challenges to the employment equity regime:
- demographics of CanadaFootnote 3
- the nature of workFootnote 4, and
- the evolving understandings of diversity and inclusion in employmentFootnote 5
For example, there have been calls to include other groups amongst the Act’s designated groups, including members of LGBTQ2 communities.
In addition, certain sub-groups within the designated groups face larger gaps in standard employment indicators than others. These sub-groups include:
- Indigenous peoples
- recent immigrants
- members of visible minoritiesFootnote 6, and
In addition, persistent inequities call for a collaborative approach with employers, stakeholders and partners. This collaborative approach aims at:
- identifying key barriers
- promoting best practices to close persistent equity gaps
- improving compliance and enforcement practices to better support employers in implementing employment equity and hold them accountable for their results
- moving beyond annual reporting of changes in representation metrics to present a more holistic understanding of equity in the federally regulated private sector and the federal public service, using a wider set of indicators and data sources, and
- improving public reporting in ways that help support the public conversation around equity, diversity, and inclusion
These challenges are pressing in light of the challenge to inclusive growth witnessed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Boosting the levels and quality of labour force participation of underrepresented groups is an important part of Canada’s long-term growth strategy. The COVID-19 recession has had significant negative effects on the employment of these groups. There is a risk that these groups’ labour market progress will be reversed. The setback of these progresses can also have negative long-term effects on the course of Canada’s growth trajectory and on social cohesion.
These factors led to the establishment of the Task Force, whose mandate consists of undertaking the review of the Act and its supporting programs. In addition, the Task Force will make recommendations to the Minister of Labour on how to modernize the Act and its supporting programs.
The Employment Equity Act Review Task Force will undertake a detailed review of the Act and its supporting programs. It will:
- study a series of issues related to promoting equity, diversity and inclusion in the workplace
- engage with stakeholders, partners and the public on these issues, and
- provide a report to the Minister, via the Deputy Minister of Labour, with evidence-informed advice and recommendations on how to modernize and strengthen the Act
Annex 1 - Glossary
Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) recently launched the 50-30 Challenge aiming at improving access to leadership positions on corporate boards and in senior management for women, racialized minorities, people who identify as LGBTQ2, people living with disabilities and First Nations, Métis and Inuit.
To undertake this work, ISED mandated the Standards Council of Canada (SCC), in partnership with the Ryerson University Diversity Institute (RUDY), to conduct consultations with key stakeholders on equity terminology.
The consultations started in May 2021 and consists of 14 to 16 focus groups. These groups are composed of members of diversity and inclusion communities and other key stakeholders. The process intends to develop a common understanding of equity terminology and to establish common modernized standards.
A consultation document was shared in May 2021 and a Report and Guidance document will be published and shared in August 2021.
As the mandate of the Task Force also concerns updating the terminology of the Act, the results of these consultations may also inform the work of the Task Force.
Prejudice, attitudes, beliefs, stereotyping and discrimination that is directed at people of African descent and is rooted in their unique history and experience of enslavement. Anti-Black racism is deeply entrenched in Canadian institutions, policies and practices, such that anti-Black racism is either functionally normalized or rendered invisible to the larger white society. Anti-Black racism is manifested in the legacy of the current social, economic and political marginalization of African Canadians in society such as the lack of opportunities, lower socio-economic status, higher unemployment, signiﬁcant poverty rates and overrepresentation in the criminal justice system.Footnote 7
Attainment rate refers to the extent to which representation approaches, meets or exceeds labour market availability (LMA). This is calculated by dividing the representation by the LMA.Footnote 8
Disaggregated data refers to data broken down by age, race, ethnicity, income, education, etc. This is sometimes referred to as sex- or gender-disaggregated data.Footnote 9
Discrimination refers to exclusion, prejudice or restriction of opportunity because of one’s belonging to a category of people or things (for example, gender, disability, religion, age, ethnicity, etc.).Footnote 10
Diversity consists of the conditions, expressions and experiences of different groups identified by age, culture, ethnicity, education, gender, disability, sexual orientation, migration status, geography, language and religious beliefs (and other factors).Footnote 11
The term “employment equity” was coined by the Abella Commission in its 1984 report. The Commission proposed that:
- a new term, ‘employment equity’, be adopted to describe programs of positive remedy for discrimination in the Canadian workplace. […] Ultimately, it matters little whether in Canada we call this process employment equity or affirmative action, so long as we understand that what we mean by both terms are employment practices designed to eliminate discriminatory barriers and to provide in a meaningful way equitable opportunities in employment. (p.7, emphasis added)
Section 2 of the Employment Equity Act on the purpose of the Act provides additional elements of definition:
- The purpose of this Act is to achieve equality in the workplace so that no person shall be denied employment opportunities or benefits for reasons unrelated to ability and, in the fulfilment of that goal, to correct the conditions of disadvantage in employment experienced by women, Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities by giving effect to the principle that employment equity means more than treating persons in the same way but also requires special measures and the accommodation of differences. (emphasis added)
Fairness, impartiality, even-handedness. A distinct process of recognizing differences within groups of individuals, and using this understanding to achieve substantive equality in all aspects of a person's life.Footnote 12
Gender-based Analysis Plus
GBA+ is an analytical process used to assess how diverse groups of women, men, and gender diverse people may experience policies, programs and initiatives. The “plus” in GBA+ is not just about differences between biological (sexes) and socio-cultural (genders). We all have multiple characteristics that intersect and contribute to who we are. GBA+ considers many other identity factors such as race, ethnicity, religion, age, and mental or physical disability and how the interaction between these factors influences the way we might experience government policies and initiatives.Footnote 13
Gender equality refers to equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities for women, men and non-binary people. Equality refers to the state of being equal while equity refers to the state of being just, impartial or fair. However, equality of opportunity by itself does not guarantee equal outcomes for women, men and non-binary people.Footnote 14
Gender equity refers to fairness, impartiality and justice in the distribution of benefits and responsibilities between women, men and non-binary people. Unlike gender equality, which simply provides for equality of opportunity, gender equity explicitly recognizes and actively promotes measures to address historical and social disadvantages. By ‘levelling the playing field,’ gender equity creates circumstances through which gender equality can be achieved. Gender equity means providing all social actors with the means to take advantage of equality of opportunity.Footnote 15
Throughout history, diverse groups of women and men have faced both formal and social barriers and disadvantages in particular societies, based on gender, ethnicity, religion, age, and so on. Historical disadvantage refers to this systemic circumstance or condition.Footnote 16
Acknowledges the ways in which people's lives are shaped by their multiple and overlapping identities and social locations, which, together, can produce a unique and distinct experience for that individual or group, for example, creating additional barriers or opportunities.Footnote 17
Labour market availability (LMA)
LMA refers to the share of designated group members in the workforce from which the employers could hire. LMA is derived from the Census and post-censal survey on disability conducted by Statistics Canada. The most recent LMA data is from the 2016 Census and the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability. The LMA figures for women, Aboriginal peoples, and members of visible minorities include those aged 15 years and over who worked in their chosen occupation in 2015 or 2016. The LMA for persons with disabilities figures includes those aged 15 to 64 who worked in 2016 or 2017. Footnote 18
National Occupational Classification (NOC)
The NOC provides a standardized language for describing the work performed by Canadians and serves as a framework to define and collect statistics, manage information databases, analyze labour market trends and extract practical career planning information.Footnote 19
LGBTQ2 is an acronym standing for the categories of lesbian, gay, bisexual (those who are attracted to both men and women), transgender, intersex, queer (a self-identifying term used in some gay communities, typically by youth) and two-spirit. There are many different acronyms that may be used by various communities. Acronyms may combine sex, gender and sexual orientation attributes into one community. This combination may or may not be appropriate in all circumstances, and GBA+ analysis should be specific where appropriate.Footnote 20
Race is a "social construct." This means that society forms ideas of race based on geographic, historical, political, economic, social and cultural factors, as well as physical traits, even though none of these can legitimately be used to classify groups of people.Footnote 21
The process through which groups come to be socially constructed as races, based on characteristics such as ethnicity, language, economics, religion, culture, politics.Footnote 22
Racism is any individual action, or institutional practice, which treats people differently because of their colour or ethnicity. This distinction is often used to justify discrimination.Footnote 23
Representation is the share of designated group members in a given labour force (such as the entire federally regulated private-sector workforce, the banking and financial services sector or an individual bank).Footnote 24
Systemic discrimination refers to a system-wide, yet often subtle, form of discrimination. It consists of distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of one’s belonging to a category of people. This can apply to gender, ethnicity, religion, age, disability, etc. It is often a mixture of intentional and unintentional actions that will have a more serious effect (or a disproportionate impact) on one group than on others.Footnote 25
Systemic or institutional racism
Consists of patterns of behaviour, policies or practices that are part of the social or administrative structures of an organization, and which create or perpetuate a position of relative disadvantage for racialized persons. These appear neutral on the surface, but have an exclusionary impact on racialized persons.Footnote 26
A workforce analysis is conducted to determine the degree of underrepresentation of each designated group in an employer’s workforce. The internal representation of the designated groups in the employer’s workforce is compared to their external representation or availability in the labour market (LMA).Footnote 27
Workforce availability (WFA)
WFA is a subset of the LMA that is used in the federal public service. To determine WFA, additional criteria are applied to the LMA population, for example, education levels, citizenship, and National Occupational Classification code comparisons.Footnote 28
Annex 2 – List of acronyms
- Canadian Human Rights Act
- Canadian Human Rights Commission
- Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion
- Core Public Administration
- Department of Women and Gender Equality
- Employment Equity Act
- The Act
- Employment Equity Review Task Force
- Task Force
- Employment and Social Development Canada
- Federal Contractors Program
- Federally regulated private-sector
- Gender-Based Analysis Plus
- Gross Domestic Product
- Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada
- Labour Market Availability
- Labour Program
- Legislated Employment Equity Program
- Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and two-spirited, where the plus-sign signifies a number of other identities
- Management Accountability Framework
- National Occupation Classification
- Non-governmental organizations
- Public Service Commission of Canada
- Report of the Royal Commission on Equality in Employment (1984)
- The Abella Report
- Ryerson University Diversity Institute
- Standards Council of Canada
- Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat – The Office of the Chief Human Resources Officer
- Workforce Availability
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