Revision of Minority Advantage

Government and University of Waterloo (UW) attempting to even out the playing field
Posted to site July 31, 2010
Sonia Lee
Eduardo Ramirez
Staff reporter

In light of the Conservative Government’s recent proposed changes to the hiring practices in the public sector, the topic of fair legislations and policies
about equality and justice has been a controversial one.

This is because of the tendency, according to those opposed to it, for these things to marginalize groups and create divisions within and among them. These divisions could lead to injustice and unequal opportunities that affect a wide majority of students and employees in Canada.

Students might not be familiar with what Affirmative Action (AA) programs are, or how they are applied, but these programs can affect students when they
apply for employment or government loans, grants, or even scholarships. The Student Awards and Financial Aid (SAFA) office states that scholarships don’t discriminate; it is an equal access opportunity open to all students. Manager for undergraduate awards, Brenda Denomme, stated that AA is not legal in Ontario or Canada, but it is stated by the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC).

Denomme agrees that giving students equal opportunities to apply for scholarships is beneficial both for the university and students.

“Only for specific reasons can we target a specific group,” she said. An example of this is giving more opportunities to women who apply for scholarships
for the faculties of engineering or science in order to solve the underrepresentation of this gender in these career paths.

Interestingly, despite the SAFA office’s claim that scholarships provide an equal opportunity open to all students, the University of Waterloo does offer
scholarships that seem to imply a preference for specific groups, such as Aboriginal or francophone students. The Ontario International Education Opportunity Scholarship Program (OIEOS), for instance, states on its application that “preference will be given to students with disabilities, and to Aboriginal and francophone students who self-identify.” The UW full-time bursary/award application asks “Are you an Aboriginal Person? (voluntary declaration).”

The OHRC has a specific policy on scholarships and awards. This policy claims that criteria such as race, place of origin, citizenship, sex, sexual orientation, age, disability, etc. “should not be the basis for deciding who gets a scholarship, unless, particular exceptions apply.” This raises the question of how these exceptions are defined and when or if these statements and declarations that are being found on UW scholarship and bursary applications are warranted.

Sarah Cook, Federation of Students VP of Finance, agrees that equality of opportunities is essential to the health of the university. “Our goal as an institution is to educate, not to create barriers to students based on race or financial factors,” she said.

Cook also believes that we need to address those barriers that may limit students without creating new barriers that may affect students in a discriminatory way.

This is why the current Feds representatives are working on creating a sort of equality committee that will deal with any issues regarding equal opportunities issues, explained Cook.

“[This] will provide students and staff with a more equal and fair way to deal with any problems that may arise from any preferential treatment programs,”
she said.

The Canadian Charter, the Canadian Employment Equity Act requires employers in federally-regulated industries to give preferential treatment to four designated groups: women, people with disabilities, Aboriginal people and visible minorities.

In most Canadian universities, people of Aboriginal background often have lower entrance requirements and are eligible to receive exclusive scholarships.

Some provinces and territories also have affirmative action-type polices.

For example, in Northwest Territories, Aboriginal people are given preference for jobs, and education, and are considered to have protected status. Non-aboriginal people who were born in the NWT or have resided half of their life there are considered to have protected status, as well as women and disabled people.

The roots of affirmative action are in the 1984 Abella Commission, chaired by Judge Rosalie Abella. She created the term “employment equity” for the Canadian context, but it could seem that separating people into different groups based on gender or race is counterproductive for the equity principle, even if the main goal is to protect those minorities.

UW psychology Prof. Ramona Bobocel, conducted research several years ago on the issues dealing with social justice. Her research focused on fairness, justice, and equality in the workplace. Her paper, entitled “The Concern for Justice: Cause or Rationalization?” was published in 1996 and states that the researchers “were interested in whether people’s concern for justice determines their attitudes toward various organizational policies, or whether people’s concern for justice merely rationalizes other less socially-desirable motivations.”

Bobocel concludes that a central problem that confuses the debate about AA is that “people often do not specify what they mean when they use the label “affirmative action.” Very often AA programs can take a wide variety of forms that people do not comprehend.

In the late 1990s there was case arguing against affirmative action that made it to the Supreme Court of Canada. The case involved a scholarship that was restricted to “Protestant Christians of the White race” this case made OHCR change its policies in order to fulfill equity requirements that are fair for
all students and avoid reverse racism to Caucasians.

Many universities and colleges refuse to administer awards that are restricted to persons of a particular ethnic origin. Donors have, in some cases, changed their eligibility criteria so that awards are now granted according to merit, ability or potential. The question still remains of whether affirmative action ameliorates inequality or merely diverts it to other groups.

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