William Watson: With fairness for some?

Table of Contents Breadcrumb Trail LinksArticle contentAdvertisementArticle contentAdvertisementArticle contentAdvertisementArticle contentAdvertisementArticle contentAdvertisementArticle content William Watson: No,…

It seems ‘equity’ is no longer a synonym for ‘fairness..’ It’s now more like ‘largesse’

Article content

A lot was jarring about last spring’s record-setting federal budget, which the Senate approved last week. All the red ink aside, what caught my eye were repeated references to “equity-deserving” groups (though, its only economy, the budget didn’t use a hyphen). Thus in government procurement, there were to be “competitions open to businesses run by Canadians from equity deserving groups” in order to “help build a more inclusive economy” — by excluding businesses led by other groups. Similarly, the National Arts Centre receives $6 million over the next two years “to support collaborations with equity deserving groups to help relaunch the performing arts sector.”

Advertisement

Article content

As Orwell taught us, words matter. “Equity” used to be synonymous with “fairness.” True, politicians’ go-to reference was always “achieving fairness and equity,” which suggests the two are different. But a quick scroll through the dictionary sites reveals that’s more a reflection of politicians not understanding the concept of redundancy than of any actual difference between the two words.

If equity does mean fairness, what if we substitute fairness for it in the budget’s language? How do we react to the idea of “fairness-deserving entrepreneurs” or “fairness-deserving arts groups?” The implication is that some entrepreneurs and arts groups don’t deserve fairness. But all Canadians — all humans, for that matter — deserve fairness, don’t they? Being fair to everyone is part of the Canadian ideal, isn’t it?

Advertisement

Article content

So it seems “equity” is no longer a synonym for “fairness.” It’s now more like “largesse.” When we imply, as the budget does, that a group is deserving of equity, we really mean it is deserving of government assistance, in kind or in cash, that others don’t get. From a government constantly preoccupied with questions of fairness, as the current one is, the implication must be that the largesse is justifiable, that extra favours make up for disadvantages, whether experienced by those favoured or by their forbears and whether perpetrated by other Canadians now living or by their forbears.

Receiving largesse I have always found to be a pleasant experience. It is unreasonable to expect potential recipients to refuse it. Whether that makes selective largesse a good idea for the society at large is another question. The budget says, without presenting evidence, that running procurement “competitions open to businesses run by Canadians from equity deserving groups … would help … boost the competitiveness of these businesses, and all Canadian businesses.”

Advertisement

Article content

First, since procurement competitions are already open to businesses run by any kind of Canadian the budget really means competitions open only to these groups. Beyond that, is it true that winning a competition from which many of your competitors are excluded makes you more competitive? And how is it exactly that all Canadian businesses are made more competitive this way? Perhaps those excluded from the special competition have to be all the more effective in their competition to win the share of the market still left to them. If so, that implies it’s not largesse that builds competitiveness but overcoming obstacles.

Who are the equity-deserving groups in Canada? The budget mentions women, young people, LGBTQ2 people and racialized Canadians. “Racialized” is another newish term in Ottawa. The officially sanctioned term used to be “visible minorities.” It is now “racialized.” The budget used “racialized” on 76 pages, including more than once on many.

Advertisement

Article content

“Racialized” comes out of the idea that race is a social construct, which it is, and that a person’s race is therefore something society does to him. Race was a 19th-century idea. The Victorians, who practiced identity politics with a vengeance, nattered on about the “Irish race” or the “French race.” There is only one race, we liberals argued in response, the human race, and we are all members of it.

There is obviously truth in the idea that ethnic and “racial” distinctions are socially imposed — a fact that will become painfully clearer as a society moving more in the direction of dealing differently with groups deemed differently deserving must define the boundaries between them. But it is strange to see the left embrace “racialization” and a set of social policies based on this discredited construction.

Advertisement

Article content

The concept of “race” aside, a person’s skin colour and background clearly are things that happen to them. You can’t change your skin (though lots of “white” people sacrifice time, money and epidermal health trying to get darker). And though you may lie or otherwise obfuscate about your background, the facts of it are what they are.

Do we really want to build considerations of skin colour and background into our policies in (another newish word) a systemic way? Will we have to bring back things like the Von Luschan chromatic scale, which distinguished 36 different skin colours and was used in physical anthropology, including by some very unsavoury characters, in the early 20th century? Or would it be better to avoid legislating all these distinctions and continue to work toward the liberal ideal of a colour-blind society? By definition, ideals are never attained. But that is no reason to abandon them. We know, the world being what it is, that we won’t catch every murderer. But that doesn’t cause us to give up trying.

Advertisement

In-depth reporting on the innovation economy from The Logic, brought to you in partnership with the Financial Post.

Comments

Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.