Benefits the New Goal of Equality Rights

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald, August 5, 2003

Last week, the trials of Rashel Ebrahim, a single mother who arrived in Canada from Iran as a refugee in 1997, made national headlines. A front page Globe and Mail profile described the discrimination she had suffered, not under the harsh Islamic regime that she fled, but under the unjust policies of Human Resources Development Canada.

The story clearly demonstrates that the war against discrimination and struggle for equality in Canada has long ceased being about human rights. Rather, it has become a competition for the redistribution of special privileges and benefits between groups judged to suffer disadvantage in mainstream society.

Upon arriving to Canada as a refugee in 1997, Ebrahim worked her way through a series of low-level jobs while pursuing computer-programming studies at Toronto’s George Brown College. Last May she graduated at the head of her class and within a month had a job lined up with a small upstart software company.

There was just one obstacle in what would otherwise be an unqualified success story. The company’s internships were subsidized by HRDC’s youth-employment strategy, targeted to students between the ages of 15 and 30. Ebrahim, 39 years old, didn’t qualify for the program and lost out on the job.

Despite the fact that the government’s youth-employment strategy was designed specifically for young people between the ages of 15 and 30, Ebrahim cried discrimination, blaming the government for forcing her onto welfare. I’m so angry, she told the Globe reporter. Why is the government forcing me to go on the path that I don’t want?

Her demand that the benefits of the government’s youth-employment program should be extended is the kind of case that has become all too common in human rights tribunals and courtroom across the country.

While the principle of equality has always been important in liberal democracies governed by the rule of law, its meaning has undergone a radical transformation over the past three decades.

The theory of formal equality ensures equal opportunity and fair competition between individuals by eliminating barriers to participation in politics and society. In Iran, for instance, there is no formal equality; woman and religious minorities are denied these fundamental civic and political rights.

In Canada, such rights are taken for granted. Indeed, it was this principle of equal opportunity that facilitated Ms. Ebrahim’s integration into Canadian society and impressive educational advancement within six years of arriving here.

However, Canadian federal and provincial human-rights theorists - and most importantly, the Supreme Court of Canada - have begun to embrace an alternative theory of substantive equality. According to this idea, policy-makers must look carefully for any adverse impact of supposedly neutral laws or rules and respond with positive measures, such as a new privilege or benefit, to remedy the purported disadvantage or discrimination. Section 15(2) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms goes so far as to provide for affirmative action programs for certain historically disadvantaged groups, such as ethnic and cultural minorities, and women.

Consequently, the struggle for so-called equality in Canada has become a competition between groups over the redistribution of benefits and privileges in Canadian law and policy; Ebrahim’s complaint that an employment training program targeted specifically at youth is actually discriminatory, is a typical example.

Taking the theory of substantive equality to its logical end, there are really only two ways to remedy discrimination in society. The first would involve eliminating all benefits and programs targeted at specific groups. In addition to youth employment programs, this would include welfare and other income supports limited to individuals that fall below a certain income threshold, as well as the affirmative hiring practices widely practiced by the federal government.

It is unlikely that this remedy would satisfy equality-rights advocates.

The other way would involve extending the scope and eligibility of existing benefit programs. This is, in fact, the direction that equality-rights theory in Canada is going.

Indeed, the Supreme Court of Canada came one vote shy of turning this theory into constitutional law in last December’s case of Gosselin v. Quebec, which considered whether Quebec welfare policies that reduced the benefits paid out to individuals under 30, discriminated against young people.

This is not a remedy which should appeal to Canadian taxpayers.

The Globe story played on the supposed irony that Ebrahim fled Islamic Iran, where she was discriminated against as an Assyrian Christian, only to find age discrimination in Canada, a land of so-called opportunity. Yet, this is hardly an irony at all and grossly belittles the very real human rights denied Christian women in Iran.

What is truly ironic, however, is that Ottawa has a plethora of programs and benefits targeted towards the historically disadvantaged groups to which Ebrahim also belongs: immigrants, religious and ethic minorities, and women.

Whatever happens to her case, concerned Canadians are entitled to wonder to what extent she has already benefited from these. Does she really need one meant for somebody else?

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