Margaret Mary Hageman's article

Margaret Mary Hageman - Former Executive Director of AEE

5 min read

Remembering Sri Gungan Sri-Skanda-Raja, Anti-Racism Role Model working for equity in Toronto in the 1990’s

The Context: Toronto’s changing complexion in the 1990’s

In the 1990’s, Toronto’s population was growing and the balance was shifting from a white, settler, provincial place toward a mega-city populated by non-white and mostly educated with immigrants with a wider outlook. Toronto was safe, peaceful and provided opportunity for so many newcomers and we became a multi-cultural international city. This positive evolution came with growing pains, especially in a social context. While Canada has a reputation as tolerant society and Canadians are terribly polite, the business, political climate was cool to ‘racial minorities’, preferring to maintain traditional power structures.

The Issue: Building Support for Employment Equity Legislation

In the early 1990’s, I was working at the Alliance for Employment Equity (AEE), a grassroots organization whose purpose was to raise the profile of an important idea about fairness in hiring: Employment Equity. This idea was popularized by Justice Rosalie Abella in her ground-breaking report on Employment Equity in (year here), that found a legal footing at the federal level (in public service, in banks, airlines and other federally regulated businesses). Expanding this idea of making Employment Equity the law of the land in Ontario became a goal. The Ontario NDP government under Bob Rae was open to making employment equity a part of their platform. The thinking was to While the legal framework was more accountable to fair practices in recruitment and hiring that would result in diverse workplaces that reflected the population of available workers.

My job was to create alliances and create alliances between unions and community-based organizations that had ties to under-represented communities (equity-seeking groups of racialized persons, indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities and women) in order to build support for an employment equity law in Ontario. This was largely before post-modern communication i.e. the internet. The popular means of building alliances was through events held by unions and community-based organizations which represented the social and political interests of these groups i.e. Ontario Federation of Labour, National Organization of Women, Ontario Friendship centres, the Urban Alliance on Race Relations.

The Role of Urban Alliance on Race Relations and Sri

Meeting It was at such a community event that I found myself listening to Sri-Guggan Sri-Skanda-Raja speaking on behalf of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations. He spoke in his slow, deliberate, respectful way about the thorny issue of Race. He spoke so that every person there could follow his Socratic logical steps. It may be common knowledge now, but at that time, I had never heard anyone before explaining the myth of racial difference. He eloquently educated participants that race is a social concept and laid the foundation for what we now understand as racialization. He talked about what the Ontario Human Rights Code actually means with regards to racial inequity. He pulled me into his orbit, and the strength of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations (UARR). The UARR was an organization whose claim to fame was to pull together leaders from Toronto’s faith and ethno-specific communities to respond and advise the police after a series of racist incidents on the subway in 1975.

The UARR was a forum for communities to discuss civic issues of concern to marginalized communities in Toronto, such as racism in policing and in daily living in Toronto. The UARR became a key partner organization for the Alliance for Employment Equity to reach organizations impacted by racism on how to address racism in the workplace and strategize for legal reform. While the Human Rights Code, which clearly states that there should not be prejudice and barriers to workplaces based on disability, race or gender, it’s widely accepted that getting access to work opportunities is about ‘who you know, not what you know’. While there was little available research, the UARR and AEE listened to the lived experiences of Racialized people, disabled persons, Indigenous communities and women who went on record about the disadvantages they faced in hiring and retention. The Civil Liberties Association tested the issue with a study that sent identical resumes under different names: mainstream Anglo names vs ‘ethnic’ names to real job advertisements.; white males got call backs while ‘minority’ named individuals with exactly the same credentials and experience were clearly sidelined.

Sri and I both were dedicated to equity and were up for the challenge. I worked to talk to as many organizations and media as possible to get the word out to support Employment Equity. The NDP were informed by our network. We weathered a lot of backlash together. It was very controversial to suggest that white men had an unfair advantage to the workplace. Equity was

painted as quotas like Affirmative Action in the US instead of a policies designed to widen the job pool, and setting objective job criteria in order to reduce bias and promote fairness in the workplace. Major editorials and media outlets did not support such social and legal changes.

What happened to Employment Equity?

I joined the board of the UARR and worked closely with Sri on projects that supported equity and education about human rights..Sri and I shared a devilish sense of humour as well, which made this work a little more fun.

Our responsibilities were identification of organizations to present for support to legal reform for employers and deepen connections between equity-seeking groups. Sri was an excellent advisor and helped me to sharpen my presentation skills as well.

Daina Green was an equity subject matter expert who consulted with many unions, who was the driving force of the AEE. As Chair, she developed materials, she liaised with unions and the NDP to hammer out what an employment equity law might look like and shared this vision widely.

The AEE organized community organizations, unions, leaders in human rights law and organized summits with the NDP to discuss legal reform. We met with the first commissioner of employment equity appointed by the NDP, Juanita Westmoreland-Traore, connecting her to community groups who would be impacted. We also organized conferences and demonstrations to discuss the details with these equity-seeking groups and build policy on unbiased recruitment and barrier-free interview practices.

The story of employment equity law in Ontario was short-lived, in the final months of the NDP mandate, EE legislation was passed, but it didn’t get a chance to be put into action as Mike Harris’s Conservatives made it their first action to abolish the legislation. Social change is rarely linear. This was a set-back, but it is a brick in a wall of important developments on human rights. Employers can no longer say that white males are better for a job without more people standing up to that false assumption. And now, there’s more and better research that supports equity policy and practices. Employment Equity practices – especially keeping race-based data – is smart business strategy to ensure the benefits of a diverse workplace.

Lessons in social change:

While the story of first EE legislation was disappointing, it was actually a victory as the ideas that were part of our vision are now widely accepted and used in organizations that value true merit-based and diverse workplaces. I really enjoy thinking about those years. It was an exciting time and I had a comrade in Sri.

Sri was a disabled person, as he had an accident when he was a child, losing use of his right hand and arm. It was a fact of life, just as his diabetes was. Life was harder for him, he lost his eyesight and mobility over time. But he never let his inner light be dimmed and his moral compass never failed. He was sustained by his family, his principles, his humour and his many friends who shared his love of people and fairness.

Margaret Mary Hageman

Former Executive Director of AEE

Margaret Mary Hageman with Sri-Guggan at JS Woodsworth Award Ceremony
Margaret Mary Hageman with Sri-Guggan at JS Woodsworth Award Ceremony

Margaret Mary Hageman with Sri-Guggan at JS Woodsworth Award Ceremony