Employment equity, known as ‘affirmative action’ in the United States, is a term that is often misunderstood. We wanted to take some time to explain what employment equity really means and discuss its current status in Canada.

What is employment equity?

Many people refer to employment equity as an ideal that workplaces should strive towards. For example, someone might say “we should be fighting to achieve employment equity in the workplace.” While the sentence itself makes perfect sense, this is an inaccurate use of the term. Rather than being a status of equality in a workplace, employment equity is an actual Act with a very practical application.

The Employment Equity Act was implemented in 1998 for the sole purpose of achieving equality in the workplace. Employment equity refers to the practice of intentionally and proactively employing members of underrepresented groups such as women, differently abled people, Aboriginal peoples, and visible minorities.

The Employment Equity Act applies to:

  • private sector employers;
  • the portions of the federal public administration set out in Schedule I or IV to the Financial Administration Act;
  • the portions of the federal public administration set out in of Schedule V to the Financial Administration Act that employ one hundred or more employees; and
  • such other portion of the public sector employing one hundred or more employees, including the Canadian Forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, as may be specified by order of the Governor in Council on the recommendation of the Treasury Board, in consultation with the minister responsible for the specified portion.

(Government of Canada)

The Employment Equity Act means that employers are responsible for:

  • identifying and eliminating employment barriers against persons in designated groups that result from the employer’s employment systems, policies and practices that are not authorized by law; and
  • instituting such positive policies and practices and making such reasonable accommodations as will ensure that persons in designated groups achieve a degree of representation in each occupational group in the employer’s workforce that reflects their representation in the Canadian workforce, or those segments of the Canadian workforce that are identifiable by qualification, eligibility or geography and from which the employer may reasonably be expected to draw employees.

(Government of Canada)

Is employment equity discrimination?

Contrary to some opinions, employment equity is not a form a ‘reverse racism’ or discrimination. It is simply a practice that helps rebalance the scales and offer opportunities to those who are often overlooked. To some, it may appear that employment equity practices favour minorities, offering them an unfair or unearned advantage, but this is by no means the case. Workers everyday are denied opportunities based on their physical abilities, gender, race, and so much more. The Employment Equity Act is a small way that employers are kept in check, ensuring that they are obligated to push the workplace towards equality.