Equity (Still) Matters

8 janvier 2010



Malinda S. Smith, University of Alberta

Vice President,

Equity Issues Equity matters. It matters in our homes, in parliament, on corporate boards and in the halls of academe. Equity matters to individuals as an expression of our desire to be treated fairly and to be fair, even or perhaps especially, when it is not popular or easy to do so. It matters in law as a body of rules based on principles of fairness and justice. Equity matters in politics as an expression of democratic equality and human rights. And it matters in policy as an expressed commitment to ameliorating systemic discrimination and pervasive unfairness in social outcomes. Equity, in other words, is fundamentally about justice and fairness. Its principles and practice exceed mechanical applications of legal precedents or bureaucratic rules or procedures.

If equity is this important, what’s the catch? “Our shortcoming – forgive the academic jargon – is discursive. We simply do not know how to talk about these things.”  That was the provocative conclusion of Tony Judt in a recent lecture, “What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy?

Why, asked Judt, do “we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities trouble us so? We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present, much less offer alternatives to it. Why is it so beyond us to conceive of a different set of arrangements to our common advantage?”

Today’s dominant concepts are too often narrowly focused on the bottom line or narrow constructions of efficiency and competitiveness. They reproduce one vision of the world, one full of inequities, without challenging us to envision another world, one that strives for fairness. What we need, and what the Federation has sought to provide, is more big thinking,  more imaginative thinking, and more opportunities for talking about equity and social justice. This is precisely what the Equity Issues Portfolio has tried to do with its Equity Issues sessions at Congress.

I hope the ‘Equity Matters’ blog will become such a discursive space, one where scholars in the humanities and social sciences can engage each other and the broader community on matters of equity and social justice. I also hope that this blog will become a meeting place where scholars and practitioners can disseminate leading-edge social science and humanities equity research, and share ideas about best equity policies and practices. As well as contributing to knowledge, the archived blog entries should serve as important sources of engaged scholarship, widely accessible for teaching and learning within Canadian schools, and in colleges and universities across Canada and worldwide.

We know there are potential pitfalls to equity-talk. Equity-talk invariably raises thorny issues which, by their nature, can ruffle the feathers of the powerful or merely comfortable, whether in the federal or provincial legislatures, university and college establishment, or corporate boardrooms. Some of us will insist that as citizens and public intellectuals we are obligated to “speak the truth to power” and to “tell it like it is.” Others among us might suggest that the risks to person or career, especially for new scholars, are too great, that it is better to take a “don’t ask don’t tell” approach to equity matters – keep all that potentially contentious talk in the closet, so to speak.

What we in the social science and humanities community know best is that our most socially innovative thinking and our most imaginative and world-transformative contributions always have come with risks. We also know we will be both praised and blamed for the ways in which our engaged scholarship either contests or consolidates regimes. Who can forget the role played by academics in consolidating Nazi rule?  Academics, like merchants and travel writers, have been deeply implicated in everything from the ethics of slavery,  to justifications for the dispossession of the indigenous peoples, to legitimizing the racist state of apartheid South Africa. More recently, there has been much ado about anthropologists embedded with the military.  When we are good, we change lives and transform societies. When we are bad, we can erode wellbeing, cost lives and destroy livelihoods. What we say and write also can cost us our own lives and careers. Yet, generation after generation, scholars have taken the risks that come with the pursuit of equity and justice.

“Equality in employment will not happen unless we make it happen.”1 That was the considered judgment of then Judge Rosalie Silberman Abella in the final report of the Royal Commission on Equality in Employment which she headed. Abella argued that inequalities in employment had to be confronted with determination, because “it is unrealistic and somewhat disingenuous to rely on there being sufficient public goodwill” to sustain voluntary compliance programs. Instead, the report called for Canada to adopt “employment equity” policies and practices to provide remedy for four “designated groups,”  those that faced systemic discrimination in Canadian society – women, nonwhites, Aboriginal people and persons with disabilities.  It made clear that the obstacles confronted by these designated groups “are so formidable and self-perpetuating that they cannot be overcome without intervention. It is both intolerable and insensitive if we simply wait and hope that the barriers will disappear over time.”2 In the twenty-five years since the Abella report, some significant barriers have been overcome, many remain and new ones have emerged.

Equity still matters. So, in the best traditions of our disciplines, let’s talk equity. 

Dr. Malinda S. Smith is an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Alberta and the Federation’s vice-president (Equity Issues). Email: Malinda.smith@ualberta.ca. Read Malinda's full biography.

1 Abella, Rosalie Silberman. Equality in Employment: The Report of the Royal Commission on Equality in Employment. Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada, 1984, 197.

2 Abella, Equality in Employment, 254.