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Identity Politics as Management Fad
by Martin Loney

Canada's recent obsession with identity politics is not confined to the campuses. Diversity disciples have made substantial inroads into the business community. One of the more successful companies at work, in what is now a multi-million dollar industry, is Omnibus Consulting, headed by Trevor Wilson, who not surprisingly first learned his trade in the Ontario government.
This slight volume would be of little interest if it did not speak for a formidable project in social engineering, endorsed by a range of corporate luminaries. Wilson's contribution is introduced by David Williams, president of Loblaws, and boasts glowing endorsements from an array of diversity advocates, including Michael Finlayson, the vice-president of human resources at the University of Toronto. Readers who are moved by their case can, for a modest $1000 a year, join the Canadian Diversity Network, run from the Omnibus office.
The gurus of this movement build their case on a myopic reading of Canadian history. They hold that a world dominated by the unexamined mores of Christian, heterosexual, white males must be transformed to recognize the unique claims of a widening array of identity groups. Wilson advises his audience that the issue of diversity has arisen because of demographic changes, whereas previously Canadian society had been relatively homogeneous. These changes, combined with the increasing entry of women into the labour force, have resulted in greater opportunities for racism and sexism. The premise is succinctly expressed; it is also wrong.
Changes in immigration legislation, introduced in 1967, did facilitate much greater recruitment from Third World countries. But this did not disrupt any previous homogeneity. Contrary to the claims that the visible minority immigrants of today encounter unique problems, successive waves of immigrants have encountered suspicion and hostility. Neighbourhoods in Canada's major cities have undergone continuous ethnic transformation. As Levitt and Shaffir say, in their excellent history of ethnic tensions in pre-war Toronto, The Riot at Christie Pits, "The `Belfast of Canada' has become a multicultural mosaic, one of the great cities of the world, liberal in outlook and tolerant of diversity."
Wilson's history is a caricature, but his sociology is bizarre. The increasing presence of women in the labour market has indeed transformed the dynamics of the workplace. But this has not increased sexism; rather it has made it less tolerable. The racial transformation exemplified in Toronto, where a majority of the population will soon belong to so-called visible minorities, makes membership in such a group less and less salient.
Like other diversity advocates, Wilson builds his case on a range of statistics. The employment equity industry has brought out an enormous talent for statistical cherry-picking; its numerous employees seek to outdo one another in the production of numbers that purport to document systemic discrimination. A favourite is the claim that women make only 73 percent of the earnings of men, a figure further "improved" to a mere 50 percent by Hum and Simpson, two Manitoba professors who recognized the gains to be made by throwing part-time earnings into the pot, thus enabling themselves to compare part-time workers, the majority of whom are women, with full-time workers, most of whom are men.
Wilson is not averse to such apples-and-oranges contrasts though these take second place to his habit of plucking statistics from the air. A cursory check suggests that where figures are offered, usually without reference to any source, they are more likely to be wrong than right. Some of the errors are astonishing, not least the 50 percent underestimate of Canada's visible minority population. Reported as 6 percent by Wilson, 1991 census data indicate that in that year the true number was already over 9 percent. Compounding the initial error, Wilson suggests that in the next two decades the number will increase to 11 percent, an underestimate that is off by well over 100 percent. In case the reader is insufficiently impressed with this figure, Wilson likens it to the 12 percent of the American population who are black. Why this should be relevant is unclear; less than two percent of Canada's population is black. The United States, like Canada, has a large non-black visible minority population. In the United States, Chicanos significantly outnumber blacks.
Turning his attention to the labour force, Wilson reports that progress towards equity in federally regulated industries has been "extremely slow," visible minority employment having grown only 3 percent in five years. This may be no more than a simple inability to understand statistics. The most recent annual report, published by the federal Human Resources and Development department, indicates an increase in employment share from 5.2 percent in 1987 to 8.75 percent in 1994, a change of nearly 70 percent. The same report notes that there has consistently been proportionately more hiring of visible minorities in federally regulated industries than in the labour force as a whole. Terminations of visible minority employees in the regulated sector are lower than the average, and promotions are higher. Wilson is on equally uncertain ground when he turns to women in the work force, who, he assures us, will amount to 50 percent of it by the year 2000. The current figure, slightly over 45 percent, has changed little in the last five years. Turning to the aging of the work force, Wilson reports that the most rapidly growing section will be workers 45 to 54 years old, because 8 million baby-boomers will begin to approach "mature adulthood". Fewer than 4 million Canadians are now in the age group from 40 to 49. These are clangers of such magnitude that the reader is left wondering about the editing.
The diversity industry grossly distorts the openness of the present Canadian labour market in order to justify an extensive and profitable battery of interventions. One of the more popular examples of statistical legerdemain is the comparison of visible minority representation in the labour market with that of other Canadians. Wilson reports that while visible minorities were more likely to have a university degree, 25 percent versus 17 percent overall, they are less likely to be employed in professional or managerial jobs.
1991 census data indicate that 18 percent of the visible minority population over 15 years old had degrees, compared with 11 percent of other adults. Visible minority men were more likely than other men to hold professional jobs, visible minority women less likely than their counterparts. Wilson, like others, fails to deal with the fact that only 15 percent of visible minority adults were born in Canada. To expect a group that includes large numbers of foreign degree holders, many of whom arrived in Canada fluent in neither English nor French, to mirror the labour market success of longer-established groups is to ignore the experience of earlier immigrants.
Canada has had an unparalleled record of success in creating an ethnically diverse society with little overt tension. The forging of an integrating Canadian identity has been far less successful. The diversity industry promises the creation not of a nation but of a series of competing groups tirelessly promoting the particularities of race, gender, sexual preference, marital status, age, and other labels that may yet come into fashion.
Now elevated to the latest management fad, corporate Canada is unleashing on its hapless employees a legion of diversity trainers, whose ill-informed rhetoric will advance the festering culture of grievance.

Martin Loney is the author and editor of a number of books on race relations and social policy. He is now researching employment equity with support from the Donner Canadian Foundation.


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