When a tribunal of the Canadian Human Rights Commission ordered CN Rail to establish hiring quotas for women in its Quebec blue-collar labor force last August, even Maurice LeClair, chairman of the stateowned railway, did not complain about the “spirit or the substance” of the decision. He now says that the company exceeded the requirements of the order with a voluntary program “to remove systemic discrimination from CN employment practices.” But the railway resented receiving orders from the quasi-judicial tribunal and challenged its authority in the federal Court of Appeal. Last week three judges of that court upheld CN’s position in a split decision, ruling that the tribunal had no right to impose Canada’s first nonvoluntary affirmative-action program. By that, the judges cast an ominous shadow over the federal government’s impending “employment equity” legislation.
The ruling was “an outrage,” according to Carole Wallace of the Montreal lobby group Action travail des femmes, which initiated the proceeding before the commission with a 1979 complaint against CN Rail. In their decision, the judges did not dispute the presence of discrimination in CN’s St. Lawrence region, where less than one per cent of blue-collar jobs were held by women at the time. In fact, Mr. Justice James Hugessen said that he thought the ruling was reasonable. But he and his colleagues ruled 3 to 2 that the tribunal overstepped its authority by imposing quotas designed to increase the proportion of blue-collar women in the CN work force to 13 per cent, the national average. Said Hugessen: “The sole permissible purpose for the order is prevention. It is not a cure.”
Several women’s groups across the country responded to the ruling with calls for an appeal. And Human Rights Commissioner Gordon Fairweather told Maclean's that his organization may follow that route. Still, Fairweather dismissed widespread concern that the setback will hamper the commission in upholding Employment and Immigration Minister Flora MacDonald’s new affirmative-action legislation, which is designed to eliminate sex discrimination in federal agencies. Said Fairweather: “I am not running down into the basement and saying there is a hurricane coming. We are making new law—and that is always a hazardous business.” -JOHN BARBER
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