MTCSALC at the UN in Geneva


The United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG)

During the week of February 22, 2016, I represented the Metro Toronto Chinese and South East Asian Legal Clinic (MTCSALC), along with Clinic Director Avvy Go, to make submissions at the 57th Session of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) for their 10 year review of Canada. In addition to written submissions, we made the trip across the pond to Geneva, Switzerland, in order to provide oral submissions to the CESCR.

As Steering Committee members of Colour of Poverty – Colour of Change (COP-COC) – the provincial racial justice education and advocacy network in Ontario – the MTCSALC partnered with other racial justice seeking organizations such as the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) to make joint submissions to the CESCR.

The joint submissions focused primarily on 4 areas:

1. Income and Employment Disparities Facing First Peoples and Peoples of Colour and the Racialization of Poverty;
2. Migrant Workers’ Rights;
3. Family Reunification and Conditional Permanent Resident Status for Sponsored Spouses; and
4. Support for Community Organizations, and Programs, Policies and Infrastructure that advance Racial Equity, Human Dignity and Social Justice


Geneva – the city of the global citizen

Geneva is one of the world’s foremost centres of international diplomacy and politics. It is home of the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG), which is the second largest UN office site in the world, next to UN headquarters in New York City. UNOG is situated in the beautiful and austere Palais Des Nations, home of the now defunct and oft-criticized League of Nations (1919–1946). In addition to UNOG, several others prominent international organizations call Geneva home, including the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the International Labour Organization, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and Médicins Sans Frontières.

Given its position as an international hub, Geneva reflects a wide variety of different cultures and languages. Most of the inhabitants speak multiple languages fluently. Situated in the western part of Switzerland, near the Franco-Swiss Border, French is the primary language of choice. However, English and certain languages like German are frequently spoken there as well.

Touching down in Geneva, the first thing that caught my attention was the incredibly developed public transportation system. At the airport, there were machines which issued 80 minute free transit passes for use anywhere in Geneva, including trains from the airport to the city centre. Furthermore, most hotels also issue free city-wide transit passes which cover the duration of your stay. The Swiss government makes painstaking effort to ensure that you can get around their dazzling array of trains, trams, and buses easily and cheaply.

The second thing that caught my attention was no doubt how expensive everything was. While I had been warned about this prior to arrival, it was another thing to live it. Meals around $30 CAD were considered extremely cheap and affordable accommodation was quite difficult to come by. I was too afraid to even dip my toe into shopping for fear that sticker shock would send me to a nearby hospital.

The third thing I discovered about Geneva was how truly global the city was. Although Toronto perhaps sets the standard in terms of actual multicultural representation, everything in Geneva was tailored towards the international. Signs, restaurants, schools, and attitudes all tilt toward a global understanding of issues and a conscious effort to break away from a solely domestic focus.

ICRC Headquarters

ICRC Headquarters


This thought was crystallized when I walked out of the Museum of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent after a spellbinding tour of the history of the international humanitarian effort. A pair of primary school students approached me, along with their supervising teacher. They had set up a tripod and camera just outside the entrance and were interviewing visitors. As they explained their school project, I responded in my broken French that English would probably be a more comfortable language to converse in. The little girl seamlessly transitioned to English and asked considerably insightful questions which spoke to the heart of how Geneva wanted to educate their next generation:

  • Is the world becoming more peaceful?
  • What are the most important things for a durable peace?
  • How can we settle ongoing wars?
  • What can the people of Geneva do to aid in these efforts?

If only I had the answers.

How many NGOs can you squeeze into a clown car?

In total, there were around 30 NGOs from Canada alone which had representatives make the trip to Geneva in hopes of appealing to the UN. More specifically, they were there to get their issues heard by the 18 members of the CESCR, who then would presumably turn around and question the Canadian delegation on these issues over 2 days and a mere 6 total hours of review. Therefore, there were essentially 3 parties to the process: the dozen or so members of the Canadian delegation to the UN, the 30+ Canadian NGOs, and the 18 committee members. Observing the interplay between these 3 groups was extremely interesting and illuminating.

Of course, each NGO has its own set of issues that it wishes to convey to the CESCR. On the ground, the channel in which NGOs communicate these issues to the committee is highly informal. In these informal sessions, the total time available was essentially boiled down to three total hours over two days, one hour of which was blocked off for questions on the part of the committee members.

So let’s do the math. 2 hours is 120 minutes, which, if we assume there are around 30 different NGOs, leaves us with about 4 minutes each. Then within each NGO or coalition of NGOs, there may be multiple speakers, so let’s say around 1-2 minutes roughly for each speaker. There is also transition time between each speaker, so around 10-15 seconds is usually deducted from each speaker on the ground. So maybe we are looking at around 45-90 seconds per speaker in total.

Then consider the enormity of the issues that need to be covered regarding economic, social, and cultural issues in Canada. They include, non-exhaustively: poverty, discrimination, social assistance, immigration, environment, indigenous issues, gender issues, racial issues, health and disability issues, justiciability of ESC rights, employment and labour issues, and so on and so forth. Each issue alone would be more than deserving of a whole week of sitting down with committee members to go over. Trying to somehow cover these massive issues between 30 some NGOs within a 120 minute time block is a mammoth task.

A light-hearted moment during an orgnizational meeting among Canadian NGOs.

A light-hearted moment during an organizational meeting among Canadian NGOs


Unsurprisingly in this context, NGOs have a natural inclination to jostle and contest for limited space to convey their particular issues. They also have to figure out how to prioritize main points in their agenda that they hope will be taken up by the committee in their questions to the Canadian delegation and in their final recommendations.

The art of back-channeling therefore (as it is with so many other forums at the UN) is a critical skill that delegates must learn in order to maximize the effectiveness of their time in Geneva. Questions arise such as: which committee member covers which areas of the covenant? How can we contact and communicate with them? What ideas are they receptive to? How should we frame our pitch to them? What results, in the end, are we trying to achieve? Those NGOs that have experience in this area, previous familiarity with committee members and the process, or other insider information will therefore enjoy greater exposure vis-à-vis NGOs who lack in these areas. They also wield more power and influence in framing the direction of the discussion.

In the end, for our coalition, much of this was learned on the fly. We managed to get certain issues in the minds of certain committee members, but not others. Our original agenda of 4 items essentially shrunk down to 2 items for oral presentation due to time and other constraints. There were also unexpected issues that arose, such as the difficulty of some in the international human rights community to understand the concept of ‘racialized communities’ or ‘peoples of colour’ that were at the heart of our arguments on socioeconomic disparities and migrant worker challenges.

Canada’s response

Once Wednesday afternoon rolled around, it was show time. With the Canadian NGO delegation present as well as press corps, the committee’s review of Canada began. In a sign of times, various organizations began live tweeting the proceedings.

The review procedure also revealed practical difficulties – the 18 committee members each had their own questions which they wanted the Canadian delegation to respond to. In fact, the majority of the time spent during the official review was getting through all (rather, most) of the questions that the committee members wish to pose.

The Canadian UN delegation had a difficult task in trying to respond to this rapid-fire, shotgun type questioning. Some of the questioning had been prepared for, but some of the questioning had caught them off guard and required additional time to formulate a response. In the end, many of the responses were essentially canned responses that listed off programs and initiatives that Canada was engaged in but did not really answer the specific question put forth.


One of the key themes surrounding this 57th CESCR session was how different the Federal government’s attitude was toward the UN review in comparison to 2006, when the Conservative government essentially treated the review as a waste of time and engaged in widespread denial of any allegations or hard questioning thrown their way.

The new attitude was exemplified by the friendly banter between the Canadian delegation and Olivier de Schutter, the former UN Special Rapporteur for Food Security, who, after a review of Canada in 2012, was targeted by the Conservative government in a series of scathing and often personal attacks.

One committee member took up one of our points and asked whether the Federal government would work towards expanding mandatory employment equity beyond the 12% of Canada’s workforce currently under the scheme. However, the question seemed to be lost in the sea of other many pressing issues and the Canadian delegation did not (or chose not to) respond to it.

Our concerns surrounding the extreme vulnerability and exploitation of migrant workers was also raised by the CESCR, but struck down by the Canadian delegation when they responded that these workers had all the same employment protections as other Canadian workers, which was a blanket denial of realities on the ground more reminiscent of the Harper days than of Trudeau’s ‘sunny ways’.

Ultimately, the Canadian delegation, primarily given its time constraints, either ignored or glossed over vast swaths of questions – something that we anticipate will be brought up when the UN CESCR puts out its concluding observations sometime in early March.

See you next time…

After the end of the six hours of grilling, it was all love. NGOs patted themselves on the back for bringing important issues to the international stage, the UN CESCR was happy that Canada had finally adopted an attitude different from the dismissive denial of the Harper years, and the Canadian delegation was happy that it had brought some prestige back to its international profile.

Still, there is was an unshakable feeling that stuck with me as I left the Palais des Nations for the last time. What were the fruits of all of our efforts? Given the lack of enforcement mechanisms for international covenants, was all this effort worth it to shine a brief spotlight on Canada’s record? Or was it just a waste of time and resources?

If there is an argument for the value of this ultimately non-binding, ‘name and shame’ type of exercise, it is because there are two things that NGOs can take from the process: (1) leverage and (2) legitimacy.



There is no doubt that the mere the process of the CESCR 10 year review acts as a natural catalyst for international and domestic political forces. Canada’s review brought certain key issues to the table: poverty, housing, social assistance, employment rights, indigenous issues, racial justice, gender issues, etc., in a way that provided a narrative that could easily be digested and understood by the public. What was Canada’s record in fulfilling economic, social, and cultural rights and what areas still needed to be addressed?

NGOs used various methods to take full advantage of this moment: #CESCR2016 was trending on twitter, there was significant press coverage, videos, photos, all shared far and wide. In that sense, the work put into the CESCR could be used to leverage the message of civil society – disparate as some of those messages may have been.




There is also a legitimizing effect of having a respected moral authority like the UN take up domestic issues that may have previously been ignored in that country. This is particularly important for NGOs working at the forefront of contemporary political issues – our issue of racial justice certainly fit in this oft-ignored category.

The post of the UN Secretary General has been previously described as that of a ‘Secular Pope’ – and the UN’s various organs also carry some of that moral suasion and prestige. To have a grassroots-based organization or initiative put forward issues through the international human rights lens and then have that message come out from members of a UN committee has the effect of legitimizing it – turning the issue from a potential fringe issue that could be easily dismissed into international legal obligations that Canada must fulfill. The effect of such a process should not be underestimated, although in the end much depends on the willingness of the domestic government to put any weight on UN recommendations. This is where civil society must come in to hold government accountable.

Ultimately, it came time to pack my bags and leave Neverland for the real world. Still, it was exciting to leave with the knowledge that there is a city in this cynical world where the idealists still hold sway and the vision of global harmony still reigns supreme.  As an infamous and influential man once noted: “man’s dream will never die.”


Vince Wong

Staff Lawyer

Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic


Racial Justice in Toronto and in the Ontario Municipal Election 2014 !?

Racial Justice in Toronto and Municipal Election 2014

As evidenced in our Racial Justice Report Card for the Toronto Mayoral Candidates – see –!topic/colourofchangenetwork/dyZB1tV-BR4 – to a very great extent this municipal election has been largely absent a discussion of the ever more “colour-coded” nature of the growing inequality across the City of Toronto !?

Whether it be – Access to City Services ( including issues related to the Sanctuary City initiative ), Housing, Policing, Employment Equity – even as part of Community Benefit Agreement frameworks, Toronto’s moves toward adopting a Poverty Reduction Strategy, Public Transit and Transportation generally, the Toronto Youth Equity Strategy or the effort to extend the Municipal Franchise, etc – the absence of a willingness to meaningfully address the real and growing inequities and disparities as they correlate to the ethno-racial backgrounds of the city’s residents is ever more disturbing !!

So based on in-person meeting discussions, as well as a review of the top three candidates’ campaign platforms and public statements, the COP-COC Mayoral Candidate Racial Justice Report Card has given these candidates the grades of “A” to “F” regarding their positions on employment equity, affordable housing, public transit, the extension of municipal franchise to all residents, improving access to city services and policing.

The grades for the top candidates still in the race were ( in alphabetical order by surname ) –

Olivia Chow – B+

Doug Ford – Incomplete

John Tory –  D

It’s not about gamesmanship – or about one-upping the opposition – or delivering the best sound-bite or photo-op – this is about ensuring fairness and the equitable life chances, life opportunities and real life outcomes of the ever increasing majority of Torontonians !!  As you go the polls this election 2014 – keep the below and the attached in mind – and how effectively each of the candidates – for Mayor, for your local Councilor – and your local school board Trustee – is speaking – or not – to these ever more city-defining realities !?

This is about our future together – this is about delivering on the City’s motto – Diversity Our Strength !!

Visit the City of Toronto website – type in your address – and click “Where do I vote.” It’s easy !!

Understanding the Growing Colour-Coded Ethno-racial Inequality

The United Way  Toronto “Poverty by Postal Code” report found that between the years 1980 and 2000 the rate of poverty for Toronto area residents of white, European or Caucasian background or heritage had gone down by 28%, but for residents of First Peoples or other diverse heritages (peoples of colour) the poverty rate had gone up by – 361%.

Coming forward to the present – in 2011 – when we look at the Low Income Measure – After Tax ( LIM-AT ) rates ( ie. poverty rates ) for different sample sub-groups in the City of Toronto we see –

First Peoples – 26%

Peoples of Colour – 25%

White/Caucasian/European – 14%

Recent Immigrant – 37% ( remembering that given the country of origin make-up of recent newcomers – they are 85%+ peoples of colour ! )

And as the above lived realities continue to come to fuller light in Toronto – as well as Hamilton, Windsor, Ottawa, London and other communities around the province – those who are concentrated at the bottom of our socio-economic ladders can no longer be considered “minority” populations. Not only is Toronto already a majority of First Peoples and peoples of colour – in 2006 these two sets of diverse population groups already made up 25% of Ontario’s population – and according to Statistics Canada projections this percentage may reach almost 33% – or fully 1/3 of Ontario’s population – by 2017.

Disturbingly theGreater Trouble in Greater Toronto – Child Poverty in the GTA2008 study by the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto starkly confirms that even child poverty has become “colour-coded” or racialized.  They found that among ethno-racial groups in the Toronto census area, the LICO-Before Tax (Low Income Cut-Off) rates of child poverty in the year 2000 were roughlyone child in ten among European (white) groups; one child in five for East Asian groups; one child in four for Aboriginal, South Asian, Caribbean, South & Central American groups; one child in three for Arab and West Asian groups; and one in two for children of African heritage.

To quote the Hon. Alvin Curling and Hon. Roy McMurtry from their Report commissioned by the Ontario provincial government – the 2008 Review of the Roots of Youth Violence – “racism is becoming a more serious and entrenched problem than it was in the past because Ontario is not dealing with it.” 

The Report powerfully called on the province ( as well as key urban centres like the City of Toronto !! ) to effectively articulate their commitment to anti-racism and to best address this urgent issue as a major priority – so where are Olivia Chow, Doug Ford and John Tory on these issues – or your Councillor and Trustee candidates – at a minimum they should be acknowledging the need for the collection and analysis of ethno-racially and otherwise appropriately disaggregated data across all City departments, divisions, Agencies, Boards, Commissions and Corporations – as well as School Boards and other public institutions – why the silence !?

Further – we’ve had a number of additional reports from a variety of sources that have well echoed these troubling findings and concerns – such as – Canada’s Colour Coded Labour Market  ( Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Wellesley Institute, 2011 ), Colour Coded Health Care – The Impact of Race and Racism on Canadians’ Health ( Wellesley Institute – January 2012 )not to mention the very relevant – United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – as a critical framework for change going forward with respect to First Peoples in Toronto and across Canada !

Think Equity, think Fairness, think Racial Justice !!

So as you go to the ballot box this municipal election – think about our future together – think about how we can best – most fairly and equitably – deliver on the City’s motto – Diversity Our Strength !!

See each of the below documents – with fuller information – attached – and again feel free to circulate, copy  and share –

1) Racial Justice in Toronto and Municipal Election 2014

2) Toronto Mayoralty Candidate Racial Justice Report Card

3) Racial Justice Analysis of the 2nd Ontario Poverty Reduction Strategy

And most importantly – for those that can – get out and voteVisit the City of Toronto website

The access to justice challenges of Chinese Canadians

Photo available at:

July 14, 2014

by Avvy Go

I have been asked by Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) to write a guest blog about my thoughts on access to justice from an “Asian Canadian legal perspective.”

I am appreciative of the opportunity to share my thoughts, based on my experience working for the Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, as to the challenges still facing Chinese Canadians in accessing justice in Ontario.

Chinese Canadians and the law in Canada

To understand where we are today, we need to know where we came from. Due to overtly discriminatory laws, Chinese Canadians were not allowed to practice law in Canada until 1947.

Prior to that, Chinese were disenfranchised as second class Canadians, whose rights were deliberately curtailed by legislation at both the provincial and federal levels. The Chinese Head Tax (1885-1923) and Exclusion Act (1923-1947) were all aimed at restricting and even excluding the entries of Chinese.

Discriminatory immigration laws continued to exist after 1947, making it difficult for Chinese to come to Canada until the 1960s.

While Canada has come a long way since then, systemic barriers continue to post significant challenges for Chinese Canadians and other persons of colour from pursing a legal career. Based on the 2006 census, we know that Chinese Canadians and most Asian Canadian communities are still under-represented in the legal profession, and the lawyers from these communities are more likely to be working as sole practitioners as opposed to making partners on Bay Street.

Racialized poverty in Ontario today

Meanwhile, poverty in Ontario has become racialized, with most racialized communities experiencing higher and deeper levels of poverty as compared to non-racialized groups.

Between 1981 and 2000, poverty rates among non-racialized communities in Toronto decreased by 28%; over the same time period, poverty rates among racialized communities increased by 361%.

The study by United Way of Greater Toronto, Poverty by Postal Code, sums up the situation best. Between 1981 and 2000, poverty rates among non-racialized communities in Toronto decreased by 28%; over the same time period, poverty rates among racialized communities increased by 361%. In the City of Toronto, Chinese families are twice as likely to live in poverty, as compared to their white counterparts.

It should be noted that such racial inequities and disparities grew during an economic boom, and as Ontario’s population was becoming more diverse.

The double whammy of being racialized and poor puts Chinese Canadians and other Asian Canadians at a huge disadvantage when it comes to accessing justice. On the one hand, being poor means few can afford lawyers on their own, and must turn to the chronically under-funded legal aid program for help when they have legal problems. On the other hand, as people of colour, Chinese and other Asian Canadians must contend with ongoing systemic racial discrimination within the legal system, which in turn leads to more complex legal needs.

Equity and the justice system in Ontario

It certainly does not help when the system that is supposed to offer legal assistance either can’t or won’t. To start, the promotion of equity does not appear anywhere in either the principle or mandate of the Ontario’s legal aid program.

The two legal clinics which do cater to the Asian Canadian communities came about as a result of community struggle for equal services. Even today, these two clinics remain among the smallest in the legal clinic system, despite the tremendous needs within the communities they serve.

The challenge of systemic racism

It would be wrong to assume that the only barriers faced by members of Asian Canadian communities are linguistic and cultural in nature, and that such barriers can easily be overcome. The prevalence of systemic racism within our legal system is manifested in such issues as racial profiling by law enforcement, discriminatory immigration and refugee policies, and even the gross under-representation on the bench. None of these issues can be resolved by the meagre dollars spent on interpretation services alone.

It would be good if resources were set aside specifically to address the needs of Asian Canadian communities in accessing legal services. It would be greater still for LAO to conduct a thorough review of all of its policies, programs and practices from a racial equity lens, to help ensure that all decisions made by LAO have the effect of promoting – and not undermining – racial equality.

Avvy Go is the Clinic Director of Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic. Since becoming a lawyer, Avvy has worked exclusively in the legal clinic system, while advocating for immigrants and racialized communities. Avvy has received a number of awards including the Order of Ontario in 2014.

From Poverty to Power – Racial Justice, Making Change – Provincial Forum

Colour of Change Network members, friends and supporters – please share as appropriate !!

Colour of Poverty / Colour of Change presents its 2nd Provincial Forum –

From Poverty to Power – Racial Justice, Making Change

WHEN – Monday April 29 from 6pm to 9pm and Tuesday April 30 from 9am to 5pm

WHERE – Oakham House – Student Campus Centre, Ryerson University, 55-63 Gould St, Toronto ( Room SCC 115 ) – see –

Join us on Monday April 29 from 6pm to 9pm for a welcome to the conference, guest speakers, poetry performances and reception. Then on Tuesday April 30, join us for the all day learning and strategy forum with guest speakers, roundtable discussions and issue focused strategy sessions. Breakfast and lunch will be provided.

Roundtables will include –

  • ·      Intersectionality of oppression
  • ·        Political Participation and Representation


Issue focused strategy sessions will include the following topics –

  • Employment Equity
  • Income Security
  • Colours of Politics
  • Criminal Justice and Policing
  • Immigration Policy and the Changing Face of Canada
  • Federal Fiscal Policy
  • Education – Access and Opportunities

Everyone welcome !  Free, but please register to reserve your spot soon, click here –

If you hope to attend from outside of the Toronto area and in order to do so would require accommodations, please contact May Lui, Forum Coordinator –  or call and leave us a message at – 416-966-3882 – we’ll see if we might be able to help !!

Colour of Poverty – Colour of Change – working for racial Equity, human Dignity and social Justice across Ontario.

Employment equity laws ensure workplace fairness ( Toronto Star – online – February 1, 2013 )

Toronto Star – Opinion Section – online ( February 1, 2013 ) – Employment equity laws ensure workplace fairness – effective human rights enforcement is one of the best investments a country can make. History has shown that employers need government rules to ensure they treat all employees the same.
By: Mary Cornish Avvy Yao-Yao Go and John Rae

At long last a measure of employment equity is coming to the Peel District School Board (PDSB) with its recently announced “Journey Ahead Action Plan.” This plan, which the PDSB states will “transform” its work sets out findings, timelines and tasks for “Equitable Hiring and Promotion” flows from a settlement of a human rights complaint by a teacher, Ranjit Khatkur who had alleged before the Hearings Tribunal of Ontario that the PDSB’s hiring and promotion practices were resulting in the systemic exclusion of applicants of racially and culturally diverse backgrounds. The 15-page Action Plan includes such measures as conducting a demographic survey of the school board workforce, removing artificial barriers to hiring, and training principals on how to conduct bias-free job interviews.

Sadly, PDSB is not the only workplace that is plagued with discrimination. Most employers, like the PDSB, don’t voluntarily change their practices. It often takes legal proceeding to compel them into action.

Just think where Khatkur and other worthy job applicants might be at this point had Ontario not repealed its 1993 Employment Equity Act.

Employment equity laws and policies focus on redressing inequalities by requiring employers to plan to end discriminatory practices facing women, racialized and aboriginal peoples, people living with disabilities and others who are similarly disadvantaged.

Supreme Court of Canada Justice Rosalie Abella’s 1984 royal commission report documented how these disadvantaged groups populate the bottom rungs of the labour market — facing systemic discriminatory barriers in getting and keeping good jobs and earning fair pay. Justice Abella found that “systemic discrimination,” while often not intentional, was embedded in the labour market and employers’ systems of hiring, promotion, conditions of work and pay. She called for employment equity laws and policies since insufficient progress was being made with voluntary measures or under a complaint-based human rights laws.

The 2004 Federal Pay Equity Task Force Report relying on Statistics Canada data again documented the pay disparities faced by these groups and called for strengthened pay equity laws to address them. The federal government rejected this report. While some progress has been made since 1986, a recently released Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report, “A Living Wage as a Human Right,” documents how discrimination continues to affect the ability of many workers to earn a living wage. This persistent state of inequality continues while the income of the average CEO has grown to 189 times the income of the average Canadian.

Despite this evidence of widespread inequalities, Conservative governments have strongly opposed employment equity laws. In 1995, the Ontario Conservative government repealed Ontario’s then Employment Equity Act, 1993 based on false allegations that the law created reverse discrimination and arbitrary quotas. Nothing could have been further from the truth — the law just required employers to make sure that all qualified candidates were considered on an equal footing.

The Federal Employment Equity Act and Federal Contractors Program were established in 1986 as a way for Canada to move forward to meet its international and domestic human rights obligations. Under the act and the program, there is a mandatory obligation for employers to first identify the barriers in their workplaces which are faced by these disadvantaged groups and then, working with a union if any to take steps to plan for the elimination of those barriers and enact positive measures, goals and targets which will lead to a more representative and inclusive workforce.

Yet last June, without notice or public consultation, Canadians woke up to discover that one of their important protections, the mandatory obligations of federal contractors to plan and work toward discrimination-free workplaces had been eliminated by a legislative amendment buried deep in the Federal omnibus budget bill.

Until June 2012, federal contractors had to commit to comply with the Employment Equity Act in order to obtain government contracts. More than 1,000 employers are currently covered by the program, involving 1.2 million employees. Now, the law leaves it to the minster’s discretion to decide what rules federal contractors should follow.

Why is it important for rules to be mandatory? Because history has shown that employers need government rules to ensure that they act fairly. Employers are very familiar with developing plans which identify a problem and set targets and timetables for resolving that problem or developing a new product. Employment equity laws just require businesses to use that same model for maintaining discrimination-free workplace.

Effective human rights enforcement is one of the best investments a country can make. With disadvantaged groups struggling in this volatile economy and Canada needing to take advantage of the skills and qualifications of all its workers, this is not the time to scrimp on human rights enforcement. A labour market that allows vulnerable workers to be channelled into low-paid, undervalued work when the economy needs their skills will not be able to compete successfully in the global economy.

Planning to achieve and maintain employment equity will attract and retain the most talented workers, increase productivity, stimulate the economy and increase competitiveness while giving everyone equal opportunities to work. We need to strengthen the Federal Employment Equity Act and we hope the new premier-designate will bring similar legislation back to Ontario.

Mary Cornish is chair of the Equal Pay Coalition; Avvy Yao-Yao Go is director of the Metro Toronto Chinese & South East Asian Legal Clinic; John Rae is former president of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians.

To end poverty, we need equity in employment

Colour of Poverty

Almost twenty years after the federal Parliament of Canada pledged to end child poverty by the year 2000, Canada still has one of the highest poverty rates among individuals and families in the industrialized world. An important part of the explanation for that sad reality is that although the root causes of poverty in Canada are structural, they have not always been treated as such – preferring instead to attribute it to individual behaviour. Too often the connection between what is happening in the economy and in society generally has not been sufficiently made to our understanding of poverty. Instead we have presented it as a problem for which individuals should take moral responsibility.

The impact of this misdiagnosis on anti-poverty policy has been devastating, and has undermined the efforts of various levels of government and communities. Another critical observation that policy makers and even some anti-poverty activists have routinely ignored is the fact that poverty is not a generic experience. Rather, it arises out of weight we assign to the social characteristics of gender, race, disability, age, that we make in our society, distinctions that determine access to society’s resources. This means that poverty is not colour blind or gender blind. Different groups in society experience poverty differently, and some more profoundly than do others. For instance, we have high levels of child poverty and women living in poverty. While average poverty among seniors has declined, though not for all seniors, we have disproportionately more poverty among Aboriginal people, women, racialized groups, and persons with disability, to name but a few identifiable groups that experience poverty differently.

Today, racialized group members are two to three times more likely to live in poverty than other Canadians. It is an experience that is compounded by other historical disadvantages that often become the popular cultural explanations for racialized poverty. The experience of poverty suffered by racialized groups, accentuates the vulnerabilities to marginalization, hopelessness, voicelessness and stigmatization. Racialized poverty, understood as persistent disproportionate exposure to low income, as defined by the low-income cut-off, adversely impacts racialized groups members and represents harm to their dignity and citizenship. In Toronto, according to the United Way of Toronto report, Poverty by Postal Code, racialized families made up almost 60% of poor families in 2001. Between 1981 and 2000, when poverty rate dropped by 28% for non-racialized group members, it jumped by 361% for members of racialized communities.

A Statistics Canada study released last year concluded that for many of racialized groups members who are also immigrants, the place of birth has the strongest overall impact on the social inequality they face. A similar message has been clear from Dialogues carried out by the Colour of Poverty Campaign. Many members of racialized communities claim that their racial identity is key to their experiences of income and other disparities. The issue of race intersects conspicuously with poverty partly because of the experience of these groups with the labour market. Attachment to the labour market is central to full membership in any society and in a capitalist liberal democratic society, it is the foundation of full citizenship. It represents a source of livelihood as well as a means for identity formation and provides a sense of belonging. Attachment to the labour market is particularly central to the successful achievement redressing of all forms of exclusion. Therefore equitable access to employment and the availability of good jobs and good work place conditions are essential to ending poverty and securing the full citizenship of all members of society. Research on income disparities arising from unequal access to labour markets shows the adverse impacts on a range of social indicators of well-being, be it health status, housing status, educational attainment, political participation, etc.

It is widely understood that employment is a key element of successful immigrant settlement. Today, the education and skill levels of many immigrants are higher than ever. Education attainment among immigrants arriving over a thirty year period beginning in 1970 to 2001 show a steady improvement . But employment income is in decline relative to similarly skilled Canadian groups over the last 10 years. This is because opportunities in the labour market or in organizations are not evenly distributed. Individuals and groups are excluded, implicitly or explicitly, from job opportunities, key information networks, human resource investments, professional development through key assignments, team membership, or decision-making roles because of their identities.

A recent release of income data among Canadians by Statistics Canada is an example. The Stats Can report shows that between 1980 and 2005, recent immigrants lost ground relative to their Canadian-born counterparts. The employment income of immigrant men dropped from 85 cents for each dollar received by Canadian-born men in 1980 to 63 cents in 2005 and the corresponding numbers for recent immigrant women were 85 cents and 56 cents, respectively. Recent immigrant men holding a degree earned only 48 cents to the dollar their university educated Canadian-born counterparts did while the earning gap for non-university educated immigrants was 61 cents to every dollar earned by their Canadian-born counterparts. The more educated the immigrants are, the greater is his or her drop in income. Racialized workers and new immigrants are disproportionately over-represented in precarious work, as a consequence of their vulnerability. This translates into lower incomes and occupational status and disproportionate exposure to poverty.

And this is not because the groups are not productive. In fact, According to the Conference Board of Canada, while racialized groups averaged less than 11 % of the labour force between 1992 and 2000, they accounted for 0.3% of real gross domestic product growth (GDP). That contrasts with a contribution of 0.6% from the remaining 89% of the workforce. The groups says that the disproportionate contribution to GDP growth is likely to grow over the 2002-2016 period relative to the contribution of the rest of the population.

Increasingly the condition of unequal access to employment is compounded by neo-liberal restructuring and demands for flexibility that have made precarious employment the fastest growing forms of work – contract, temporary, piece-meal, part-time, shift work or self-employment. And it has combined with historical racism discrimination in employment to make racialized groups more vulnerable in the Canadian economy. Characteristics of these types of employment include low pay, no job security, poor & often unsafe working conditions, intensive labour, excessive hours & low or no benefits.

While the loss of well-paid manufacturing jobs in unionized workplaces, and the overall decline in our economic performance contributed to this disturbing phenomenon, the earnings disparities between recent immigrants and Canadian-born workers increased not only during the two previous decades, but also between 2000 and 2005 when the economy was doing much better. When income disparities grow in the midst of an economic boom, we need to ask what other factors are contributing to this problem.

The failure of racialized groups to convert their human capital investment into occupational status and income may arise from such reasons as the failure to translate this internationally obtained training into Canadian equivalency is due to barriers in the licensing and accreditation processes, as well as employers’ risk averse attitudes towards internationally obtained skills and experience, demands for Canadian experience that are unrelated to the core competencies of the job and other forms of employment discrimination. This is at a time when the racialized proportion of the Canadian labour force continues to grow, with trends showing racialized workers as representing the net growth in the labour market by 2011 according the federal HRSDC.

From a public policy stand point, there is no doubt that concerns about the impact of discrimination in the distribution of opportunity in the labour market will only become more prominent. Diversity will not be achieved by accident, but by the systematic setting of targets and goals in each workplace. We need to focus on the workplace as a sub-system of broader socio-economic systems that create and sustain poverty in our society.

That is why employment equity is a transformative idea. It proposes to infuse transparency in the processes that govern our access to & mobility in the workplaces of the nation. It promises a comprehensive review of the policies and practices that engender various forms & manifestations of discrimination in employment. And last but not least, it creates a culture that reproduces the expectation of equality in the policies, practices and employment environment in our workplaces and in the Canadian labour market. Employment equity aims to achieve equal outcomes or fair distribution of opportunities.

It remains true that to make progress in building equitable workplaces, employers require a formal and comprehensive equity plan to identify and eliminate barriers to equity in employment and set equity achievement goals not unlike the performance goals businesses set for the operation, and that the process must enjoy the support of senior management. It also remains though that employers need a common framework within which to undertake these initiatives – and as the Colour of Poverty has argued – the most effective way to level the playing field for both employers and for workers is by implementing employment equity legislation. It is an indispensable part of an anti-poverty strategy.

Why we must talk about race when we talk about poverty !

Colour of Poverty

Colour of Change

Statistics show that economic hardship disproportionately affects racial minorities
by – Avvy Go

This week, the provincial cabinet committee on poverty reduction is hosting the first of two invitation-only meetings scheduled for Toronto. Given the limited scope of the consultation process, the responsibility thus falls upon the community groups and individuals who are participating in these meetings to make sure that certain critical – though unpopular – questions will be addressed.

Ask any member of a racialized community who lives in poverty why they are poor and they will likely begin with the problems they have accessing good jobs or getting a promotion because of their race. They will talk about the invisible glass ceiling that seems to preserve the highest paid jobs for whites only.

If they are immigrants, they will be describing the lack of recognition for their internationally obtained degrees and experience, which leaves them little choice but to work in low-wage, dead-end jobs. They will also describe the discrimination they face in accessing health care and the unfair treatment of the justice system.

But more important, they are worried for their children, who are being suspended and expelled from school in large numbers, and are at risk of dropping out altogether. They fear that the sacrifices they have made as parents are not enough to guarantee their children a better life than they have had.

Sadly, the statistics bear out their concerns. In the Toronto area, racialized group members are two to three times as likely to live in poverty as non-racialized groups. In Toronto, racialized families make up almost 60 per cent of poor families. Between 1981 and 2000, when the poverty rate dropped by 28 per cent for non-racialized group members, it jumped by 361 per cent for members of racialized communities.

For members of racialized communities, racial identity is key to their experience of disparity. However, the issue of race and how it intersects with poverty seems to be absent from the directions given by the cabinet committee for the consultations. Framed as “focusing on children first,” the committee’s questions may not be conducive to inviting input on how to address the issues of social exclusion.

Yet politicians are not the only ones who have problems talking about race and poverty. With few exceptions, mainstream economists and anti-poverty activists have yet to fully embrace a race-conscious analysis of poverty and the appropriate policy responses. Mainstream policy discourse on poverty and economic policies are often described as race-neutral with little acknowledgement of the differential impact of poverty on diverse populations, despite the unequivocal evidence that poverty is not colour-blind.

The most recent release of Canadian income data by Statistics Canada is an example. The StatsCan report shows that between 1980 and 2005, recent immigrants lost ground relative to their Canadian-born counterparts. The employment income of immigrant men dropped from 85 cents for each dollar received by Canadian-born men in 1980 to 63 cents in 2005 and the corresponding numbers for recent immigrant women were 85 cents and 56 cents, respectively.

Recent immigrant men holding a degree earned only 48 cents to the dollar relative to their Canadian-born counterparts while the earning gap for non-university educated immigrants was 61 cents to every dollar earned by their Canadian-born equivalents. The more educated a newcomer is, the greater is his or her gap in income.

While the loss of well-paid manufacturing jobs in unionized workplaces, and the overall decline in our economic performance contributed to this disturbing phenomenon, the earnings disparities between recent immigrants and Canadian-born workers increased not only during the two previous decades, but also between 2000 and 2005 when the economy was doing much better.

Missing in the mainstream narrative is the observation that most newcomers today are from racialized communities – in contrast to 25 years ago – and that they are struggling economically despite their educational advantage over other Canadians.

Absent also is the fact that the newcomer experience is shockingly similar to that of members of racialized communities who are Canadian-born. Racialized newcomers are not the only ones who are losing ground. So are the second-generation, Canadian-born members of racialized groups, despite having higher levels of education than their cohort.

In other words, it is not that immigrants need more time to settle and catch up, it is about racialized communities lagging behind as a group – whether or not they are immigrants. Class distinction in Canada is becoming ever more a racial divide.

Those who deny poverty is racialized are not necessarily being nefarious. Like most Canadians, they have bought into our stated multicultural ideal of an equal society where everyone, regardless of race, enjoys equal rights and opportunities. It is an ideal we all share.

But beyond the lip service that is often paid, we as a society have not done nearly enough to address the structural and systemic racism that exists and its harmful consequences. Our collective denial is the biggest stumbling block to achieving racial equality.

Admitting that poverty in Canada is racialized is not an easy step to take, but a necessary one if we want to develop an effective anti-poverty strategy that addresses the root causes of poverty.

What we need urgently is a comprehensive poverty reduction plan that integrates a broad range of universal initiatives, accompanied by specific targeted measures to remedy the different underlying sources of vulnerability that expose racialized – and other disadvantaged – communities to poverty disproportionately.
Avvy Go is director of the Metro Toronto Chinese & South East Asian Legal Clinic in Toronto.

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