Rosie Abella said she’d answer questions when she turned 75

Good long interview by Paul Wells.

Money quote regarding her 1984 employment equity report:

What Abella knew was that she didn’t much like examples from American jurisprudence. “It was based on the individual. No concept of membership in groups as defining identity, as defining equality.” The more she thought about it, the more Abella decided that one concept of equality—simply treating everyone the same—constituted a dead-end path. “I thought, equality, to me, is not sameness. Civil liberties are sameness. Everyone should have the same right in their relationship with the state to be treated as well as the leaders. There is no such thing as ‘more rights,’ vis-à-vis the state, for one individual over another.

“But that’s different from human rights, where you are treated a certain way because of the groups you belong to. So if you are a woman, if you are a Muslim, if you are Jewish, if you are disabled, people treat you based on your identity. And so I thought, you can’t say, ‘Treat everyone the same.’ If you treat everyone the same, the person in a wheelchair is treated like the person who’s able-bodied, and there’s no need for a ramp, if you’re going to treat everybody the same.

“So it occurred to me that what equality really was, was acknowledging and accommodating differences. So people could be treated as an equal and not excluded arbitrarily for things that had nothing to do with whether or not they could contribute to the mainstream.”

This philosophy is encapsulated in a quote from the French poet Anatole France that opens Abella’s commission report, which she has cited frequently in her work since: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.” She would define a different law, less majestic and more alert to nuance. She coined a new term, “employment equity,” to describe “programs of positive remedy for discrimination in the Canadian workplace.”

The first surprise was when Flora MacDonald, Brian Mulroney’s employment minister, called Abella and said the Progressive Conservative government would implement the report’s recommendations. Another surprise came when countries around the world began to adapt elements of the report to their local circumstances.

Source: Rosie Abella said she’d answer questions when she turned 75

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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