October 2007: Racism Remains A Problem

Why are people of colour having trouble getting good jobs?
October 1, 2007

A recent population projection study done for the Department of Canadian Heritage predicts that by 2017 one in every five residents of Canada will be a member of what the government defines as “a visible minority.” This means that, in just 10 years, there will be from 6 to 8 million people of colour living in Canada.

Add to this picture an aging population and declining birth rates, and the result is a country that is replenishing its population base largely through immigration. And since 80% of the immigrants to Canada now come from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific region, the vast majority are people of colour—and they are also the primary source of growth in our labour force.

Consider these statistics:

  • Among the 7 million Canadians aged 18 to 34, 20% are persons of colour.
  • One in three of 5-to-15-year-old Canadians is racially visible.
  • Two-thirds of all children of colour born in Canada are under the age of 16.
  • The majority—56%—of Canada’s Aboriginal population is under the age of 24 (compared to 34% of all Canadians).

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples forecast over 10 years ago that an additional 225,000 jobs would have to be found over the next 20 years just for members of this community.

The percentage of racialized immigrants with a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or higher is 31.5 %, while the proportion of Canadian-born workers of colour with a BA degree or higher is 37.5%. For those not racialized and Canadian-born, the figure for those with a BA or higher is only 19.1% for the same age group.

Racialized immigrants hold the second highest unemployment rate (10%) eclipsed, surprisingly, by Canadian-born workers of colour (11%), while white workers face the lowest unemployment rate at 7%.

The unemployment rate for racialized immigrant youth (15-to-24-year-olds) is 14.8%, and for racialized Canadian- born youth 15.5%–compared with the overall youth unemployment rate of 13.3%.

Bottom line: The average earnings for workers of colour are significantly lower than for other workers. In addition, the type of work they may have is insecure, with fewer benefits and protections. And, tragically, higher education, when viewed in colour, does not translate into more income or more job security.

Racial discrimination, both overt and covert, is clearly a large contributing factor to the poor labour market outcomes of workers of colour. Lower incomes, higher unemployment, and precarious work are prevalent for workers of colour as a whole. The fact that Canadian-born racialized workers are doing slightly worse than racialized immigrants underlines the force of the racism operating with impunity in the labour market.

The conclusion is hard to ignore: economic disadvantage is racialized, poverty is colour-coded, and the racialized cohort, because of their colour, are not living in the black.

Racism persists in Canada, and it is impeding people of colour from entering the labour market at a pace—and place—commensurate with their skills.

One 1995 study, for example, found that the gross earnings of South Asians in Canada was nearly $7,000 less than the national average, and that the earnings of Aboriginals were $9,000 less.

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Another more recent development that serves to deny racialized communities fair access to jobs is the series of “national security” policies that Canadian governments have rushed to implement in the wake of the 9/11 events in the United States. Prominent among these policies is a 186-page piece of legislation called the Anti-Terrorism Act and Security Certificates legislation that resides under what is ironically called the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

These two legal tools grant vast powers to the police and other Canadian security officials to monitor (spy on), detain, and incarcerate immigrants who are predominantly folks of colour, to do so outside of a due judicial process, and even deport them to countries where they can be tortured.

And what persons are most vulnerable to the arbitrary application of these laws? Naturally they are members of Canada’s communities of colour–particularly the bearded, suspicious-looking Muslims or Middle Eastern types–or their kids–dubbed by the media “the homegrown terrorists.”

Maher Arar was the most prominent victim of such barbaric treatment, but other Muslims—Adil Charkaoui, Mohammed Harkett, Hassan Almreii and Mohammad Mahjoub, to name a few—have been detained for years. Others, including Canadian citizens Ahmad El Maati, Abdullah Almalki and Muayyed Nuredin—were “rendered” overseas to military officials in Syria and Egypt to be incarcerated and tortured with the likely knowledge and approval of some members of the Canadian government.

Since 2001, Canada has spent (overspent) almost $8 billion on increased security—including extra funds for policing, the military, and immigration, airport and border controls—a vast sum allocated to fighting the “war on terror,” mainly at the behest of the United States.

How will the allocation of such vast public revenues to a national (in)security agenda affect the hiring, retention, and promotion of equity-seeking groups that are the first to be put under surveillance? Will the national insecurity agenda help or keep out some groups?

We got some idea of this threat last year from a U.S. regulation that prevents Canadian workers holding dual citizenship with some 20 countries from working on U.S. military contracts. It’s called the International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR).

An aerospace industry worker in Montreal was told he would have to revoke his Lebanese citizenship in order to qualify for working under his private employer’s U.S. military contract. A Venezuelan-born aerospace worker, Jamie Vargas, has filed a human rights complaint, claiming that the ITAR rule is discriminatory because it denies him work on the basis of his place of birth. He cites occasions when he and another employee working at Bell Helicopter Textron were excluded from a computer program because of where they were born, thus adversely affecting their employment prospects.

Given the billions of dollars in military contracts and the many new jobs that could flow from the insecurity agenda, this kind of job discrimination against those born in or holding dual citizenships with certain countries can be expected to worsen. The race, rights, and equity agenda is colliding with the insecurity agenda and its fixation with alleged risks and lists of suspects. A “terror watch” list compiled by the FBI has swelled to include more than half a million names.

A spokesman for the U.S. inter-agency National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which maintains the government's list of all suspected terrorists with links to international organizations, said they had 465,000 names covering 350,000 individuals. Many names are different versions of the same identity--"Usama bin Laden" and "Osama bin Laden" for the al Qaeda chief, for example.

The NCTC database has grown at an incredible pace, more than quadrupling since 2003. And rest assured: this is not a white list; this is brown and black list.

Canada is now building its own “no-fly” list, which has already resulted in a couple of children with the same names on the list being prevented from boarding Air Canada planes. The mother of one of the boys, when she complained, was actually advised by an airport security official to change his name! No one outside the security apparatus can find out if they are on the list. You won't find out if your name or your wife’s or kid’s names are on the list until you arrive at the airport.

So where is all this racial profiling and risk-list-building going?

Consider not only which members of our community are most likely to make it onto these new lists; consider also how much our governments are investing in infrastructure, administration, and technology to compile, share, and utilize this personal information.

Consider, too, that when the federal Minister of Transport introduced Canada’s no-fly list, he also disclosed that it would be followed by a much broader screening program using sophisticated computer software and complex algorithms that determine risk factors based on undisclosed criteria. What he was referring to was the computer profiling and security check of all travellers (land, sea and air) in order to assign to each and every one of them a "security level." The technology to do this is being developed at the National Risk Assessment Centre in Ottawa.

The program will parallel--and be interoperable with--a similar program underway in the U.S., in effect putting in place the infrastructure of a North American Security Perimeter. In October of 2006, the U.S. government disclosed that its border security program will screen all people who enter and leave the United States, create a terrorism risk profile of each individual, and retain that information for up to 40 years.

Imagine the deterrent effects on long-term job hunting if your name wrongly appears on one of these lists.

According to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office--the equivalent of our Office of the Auditor-General--more than 30,000 travellers already have been falsely associated with terrorism as they crossed the border, took a plane, or were arrested for a traffic offence.

And, to be fully functional, the system will rely on biometrics identifiers, thus the push to introduce biometrics passports (a technology that has some glitches in it when looking at folks of colour) or other forms of biometrics I.D. cards. Under such a scheme, records are kept on everyone and the concept of "presumption of innocence" is reversed: every citizen becomes a suspect.

All of this is being incrementally implemented here in Canada without any political debate or input from our elected representatives.

Think of it this way: if the new risk assessment screening program were assigning a colour to every prospective traveller—orange for slow down, green for you’re free to go, and red meaning you’re not free--what colour do you think you will get in Canada’s new insecurity system? And to what extent will it depend on your colour?

(Karl Flecker is the national director of the Anti-Racism and Human Rights Department of the Canadian Labour Congress.)