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CAUT Bulletin Archives

April 2001

Employment Barriers Still Block Aboriginals & Visible Minorities

Nan Weiner

Unequal Access: A Canadian Profile of Racial Differences in Education, Employment & Income

Jean Lock Kunz, Anne Milan & Sylvain Schetagne. Toronto: Canadian Race Relations Foundation, 2000; 40 pp; full report and report highlights (pdf files) available at
Is there equality in Canadian society for Aboriginal peoples and visible minorities? Do racial minorities still face barriers to success in the workplace? These are the questions Unequal Access wants to answer. Quantitative and qualitative data are marshaled to do so. Overall, the findings show that problems still remain. Though discrimination has become more subtle and less overt, its adverse effects are still present.

This research is particularly useful in providing information on education, employment and income for a single sample, given the obvious relationship between these factors. However, for the most part, the authors let the numbers speak for themselves. There is little analysis. Based on the 1996 Census and the National Graduate Survey some of the findings reinforce what is already known — Aboriginal peoples have lower education levels and visible minorities have higher levels than whites. Overall levels of education increased for all groups between 1991 and 1996. Some other findings about working age (25-64) Canadians include:

  • Higher education for visible minorities does not provide expected returns of employment and income.
  • Foreign-born visible minorities experience greater discrepancies between education and occupation than other groups (less than half of those with a university education have high skill level jobs).
  • Even with post-secondary education, unemployment rates are higher for racial minorities, especially foreign-born visible minorities (12 per cent) and Aboriginal peoples (23 per cent) compared to whites (7 per cent) and Canadian-born visible minorities (8 per cent).
  • Given the same level of education, whites, whether foreign or Canadian-born, are three times as likely as Aboriginals peoples and about twice as likely as foreign-born visible minorities to be in the highest income quintile. Canadian-born visible minorities are still less likely than whites (Canadian and foreign-born) to be in the top 20 per cent of the income distribution.

The inclusion of data on both foreign-born and Canadian-born individuals allowed for some interesting analysis — is it being a racial minority, being an immigrant, or an interaction of the two which leads to some of the findings regarding employment and income? However, the authors did not routinely make this comparison in the text, though data is available in the tables. Neither was there any multi-variant analysis which would have better addressed these more complex questions.

Further, the findings on occupation are not very meaningful, since self-employed and employed are both included and there is insufficient information about how they are broken down by group. Thus, the study finding that whites and visible minorities are found equally in managerial jobs is meaningless because half of the visible minorities are self-employed compared with only one-third of whites.

Obviously, when addressing questions of discrimination the dynamics of hired employment are totally different from those of self-employment. It would have been interesting to have had more information on the proportion of self-employed between Aboriginal peoples and visible minorities, similar to some of the statistics on women, but that realistically is for another study.

Some interesting and unexpected findings are not highlighted. For example, among women, Canadian-born visible minorities have the highest income — 108 per cent of Canadian-born whites. This, compared to 102 per cent for foreign-born whites, 87 per cent for foreign-born visible minorities and 84 per cent for Aboriginal women. Since this challenges some of the concerns around the issue of "double jeopardy" — being a member of more than one disadvantaged group — clearly more study is needed.

Among men the highest paid are foreign-born whites followed by Canadian-born whites, Canadian-born visible minorities, foreign-born visible minorities and Aboriginal men — indicating the effects of being an immigrant differ by race. These findings for both men and women have held since 1991.

The qualitative findings are derived from focus groups with a total of 84 participants. As the authors note, these findings cannot be generalized, yet they provide some interesting food for thought. In some cases the comments are disturbing because these concerns have been around for so long — for example, the continuing existence of a requirement for Canadian experience, difficulty in assessing foreign credentials, and being passed over for promotion. Some of the other ideas which need to be explored include:

  • Some acceptance that discrimination exists, but less in Canada than many other places.
  • Racism is seen as declining and it is expected the next generation will suffer from it less.
  • Immigrants have to work harder — and do.
  • Filing a human rights complaint is not seen as likely to be effective and could even make matters worse.
  • Government is seen as having a major role in promoting tolerance.
  • Employment equity is seen as useful, although not without the difficulties of being perceived as having gotten one's job through something other than qualifications, as well as the risk of potential backlash.

The finding that Aboriginals and visible minorities continue to face barriers is useful only up to a certain point. What would be more useful is better identification of how these increasingly subtle barriers operate and how they can be removed. Buried in this study are a number of very interesting research questions requiring further study.

One small point — and a personal one. We all have our favorite approach to politically correct language. I found the use of "non-racialized" to refer to "whites" made awkward reading in addition to describing a group as what it is not rather than what it is. The authors' purpose in using the term "non-racialized" was to avoid using "white," which is automatically assumed as the frame of reference. However, in this work, the conditions of whites are assumed to be those without discriminatory effect and so are the standards against which we are comparing the other groups for the purposes of this study.

Dr. Nan Weiner is president of NJ Weiner Consulting, Inc. specializing in workplace equity issues since 1984, and also teaches a course in diversity and inclusivity at the University of Toronto.

1 1996 Census — Public use micro-data file based on 2.8 per cent of the Census records. Comparisons are made between 1991 and 1996 Census data.

2 National Graduate Survey follows the same sample of post—secondary graduates (college, trade school, and university) two and five years after graduation. Focused on those who graduated in 1995.