To make Black lives matter, make Black jobs matter too

The killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, all by current or former police officers, triggered a second tidal wave of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the U.S. this spring. Like the first wave in 2012, this one quickly burst the banks of international borders, spilling into the streets of many Canadian cities and as far afield as the U.K. and Germany.

In Canada, this second wave of Black Lives Matter reverberated painfully. This was due, at first, to the police-involved death on May 27 of a 29-year-old Black and Indigenous woman in Toronto named Regis Korchinski-Paquet. Only a month earlier, police had shot and killed a 26-year-old Black man named D’Andre Campbell in a neighbouring suburb of Toronto.

Anti-Black murder and police violence are not new on either side of the 49th parallel. However, these incidents occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant that an unprecedented number of Canadians in extended shutdown were captive to the social and broadcast media on their televisions, computers and phones. In effect, it has never been so difficult to tune out the raw proof of anti-Black racism in Western society.

The confluence of these factors, global and local, has ultimately led Canada to undergo what I call the Great Racial Awakening. I refer to it as such because Black people in Canada have for centuries recognized and resisted anti-Black racism on these lands. However, up until the present moment, anti-Black racism in Canada has never been confronted by mainstream institutions as a deeply embedded national phenomenon.

But now, this great awakening has led to bold and confident assertions, including by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Business Council of Canada, that anti-Black racism is a widespread systemic cancer affecting Canada’s whole body politic. The obvious question is, what are we going to do about it?

In my years of legal, policy and public advocacy, I’ve offered many ideas about how Canada can do better by Black Canadians. I’ve recommended everything from an African Canadian Justice Strategy to address the overpolicing and overincarceration of Black Canadians to the implementation of a national policy for Black arts, culture and heritage, to tap into and enhance the immense potential of Canada’s Black creative communities. I stand by these and other ideas and maintain that they should be adopted.

But in the midst of the current anti-Black racism reckoning that has spurred Canada’s Great Racial Awakening, it is economic justice for Black communities that I think is most needed. That means modernized employment equity legislation at the federal level, and the introduction of robust provincial and territorial employment legislation across the country.

By modernized, I mean legislation that explicitly states that part of its objective is to better the conditions of employment for Black Canadians so that they can realize their fullest economic potential.

Canada exists as what Ryerson professor and CCPA research associate Grace-Edward Galabuzi calls an “economic apartheid.” The concept is used to describe the way the Canadian labour market and economy are structured as racially stratified systems in which Black people are confined to the lowest rungs of financial well-being. Data from Statistics Canada bear this out:

  1. In the 2016 census, Black unemployment rates were consistently higher than in the overall population at 12.5% versus 7.7% for other racialized groups and 7.3% for white Canadians. This was the case even at higher levels of education. For instance, among those with a postsecondary education in 2016, the unemployment rate for Black Canadians was 9.2% compared to 5.3% for the rest of the population.
  2. Black Canadians are nearly twice as likely as non-racialized Canadians to be of low-income status. Some 23% of Black Canadians in the last census were considered low income while the rate for other racialized Canadians was 20% and that for white Canadians was 12%.
  3. There’s a multigenerational wage gap for Black Canadians as well. On average, first-generation Black Canadians make an income of about $37,000, compared to an average income of $50,000 for new immigrants who are white. The average income of third-generation Black Canadians as recorded in the 2016 census was $32,000, compared with $48,000 for white Canadians.

Not only are these disparities dramatic, they’re also chronic and date back decades. Modernized employment equity legislation can help fix this. We could model it on Ontario’s short-lived employment equity legislation, adopted by the NDP government in 1993 and scrapped by the Progressive Conservative government of Mike Harris that swept to power in 1995.

In the spirit of the Ontario model, this legislation could create benchmarks for recruitment, hiring and promotion for employers. It could also feature the establishment of an Employment Equity Commission tasked with supporting companies to foster more inclusive and welcoming work environments for Black employees.

I believe now is the time to revisit, reform and or reintroduce stronger employment equity legislation. The root of almost every mass movement, and the source of so much social unrest, is economic exclusion—a feeling of being devalued, of not belonging.

Black and other racialized people in Canada were already discriminated against in the workforce before the pandemic. They are now overrepresented in the lower-paid and precarious frontline jobs that pose the highest risk of contracting COVID-19. The feeling of social exclusion is acute among far too many Black populations in Canada.

It’s in conditions like these that pernicious police-community relations thrive. So, if we really want to make Black Lives Matter, we have to make Black Jobs Matter too.


Anthony N. Morgan is a Toronto-based human rights lawyer, policy consultant and community educator. This post was published in the July/August 2020 issue of the Monitor.

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