We may have to erect a tombstone on Parliament Hill and inscribe it "Here lies pay equity," if Canada’s MPs support the Public Sector Equitable Compensation Act, buried deep in C-10, the Conservatives’ Budget Implementation Act.

Eleven recipients of the Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case, the country’s highest honour given to women, and more than 60 experts on women’s human rights have called on Stephen Harper to drop this legislation because it empties women’s right to equal pay for equal work of its meaning. But media space has more readily been given to those denigrating pay equity with such old saws as "Equal pay for work of equal value is like comparing apples and oranges."

In contrast to Canada, the EU has recently moved to strengthen its pay equity legislation. The European Parliament has called "for the organization of a European Equal Pay Day to contribute to raising awareness about the existing wage gap and to encourage all those involved to take additional initiatives to eliminate this gap."

Yet in Canada, conservative economists continue to posit, contrary to extensive evidence, that the market, if left unregulated, will resolve wage and other financial inequities. But history shows that the absence of market regulation leads to, rather than prevents, gender inequity. And recent global economic events further reveal the problem with unregulated markets.

If the market is capable of redressing discriminatory wage inequity, then why has that not happened? Why is it that on average women’s income continues to be a shameful 70 per cent of men’s average income? Rigorous research has shown that women are paid less than men on average whether they are performing the same work, similar work, or work of comparable value. And contrary to oft-repeated myths, women do not choose lower-paid work.

Consistently, when women manage to enter and subsequently dominate historically male-dominated jobs or professions, either wages in those jobs become depressed or women are simply paid less than men for the same work. And perhaps most significantly, the consequences of non-intervention in wage setting is an unequal burden heaped on women who must suffer lower wages for some unknown duration until those benevolent unseen forces one day resolve the wage differentials. And when that long-heralded market correction fails to appear, some "expert" will simply attribute those low wages to the inability of women to bargain effectively.

If Bill C-10 is presented in the interest of saving money, as its name suggests, then why are women in the public sector to be burdened disproportionately with this decision? And where is the evidence to support the need for such a measure? Fundamental human rights can be abridged only when it is demonstrated on evidence that an abridgement is "reasonably justified" in a "free and democratic society." The government has admitted that it has no evidence.

Responding to calls for reform to the pay equity provisions currently in force, in 2001 the federal government initiated an independent task force to review Section 11 of the Canadian Human Rights Act. After more than two years, countless research papers and expert and lay public submissions, the task force concluded that the legislation was not achieving its goals. The task force accepted the demand for pro-active legislation requiring employers and employees (or their unions) to enter into a timely research-based process of assessing job value and wage structures. Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba had moved in this direction already. Both the Liberal and Conservative federal governments rejected this wealth of wisdom and experience.

But far worse than rejecting the findings of the independent panel and the extensive record of diverse voices, the current government has rejected its own entrenched international commitments as well. Canada is a signatory to the 1976 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Article 7 requires Canada to ensure "Fair wages and equal remuneration for work of equal value without distinction of any kind."

In 1978 the federal government affirmed this commitment by enacting pay equity protection in S. 11 of the Canadian Human Rights Act. Accordingly, equal pay for work of equal value protections share the quasi-constitutional status that the Supreme Court of Canada has afforded human rights legislation since at least 1985. As a human right, it is not a matter of negotiation for the bargaining table.

Years of debate preceded the passage of the Canadian Human Rights Act. A virtual absence of debate has marked its desecration. Shame rests on all the parliamentarians and media who fail to decry this collective white-washing of history and human rights.


Pat Armstrong is a professor of sociology and a CIHR chair holder at York University; Paul Durber is past director of pay equity at the Canadian Human Rights Commission; and Rosemary Morgan is an Ottawa human rights lawyer and former lead counsel for the Canadian Human Rights Commission in the federal public service pay equity litigation.

This article was originally printed in the Ottawa Citizen and is reprinted here with permission.