05/15/2012 12:03 EDT | Updated 07/15/2012 05:12 EDT

What's Wrong With Affirmative Action? Ask the CBC


In a recent article, Rex Murphy characterized affirmative action as "an inequity in itself," "hollow" and "false." In his usual stern-faced, firm and finger-wagging manner of analyzing the issues of the day, Murphy makes some excellent and interesting points.

Though I don't entirely agree with his assessment of the policy, like Murphy, I am certainly in favour of putting an end to what he calls, "the hitherto unquestioned status of affirmative action." He and I likely differ, however, on why we think this should be done.

Murphy believes that a more free debate on affirmative action, or as we call it in Canada, employment equity, will ultimately help us see that this policy "has outgrown what tenuous utility or point it might once have had." I, on the other hand, think that the CBC commentator's call for a more open debate on affirmative action is important because such would reveal that affirmative action/employment equity is to North American society what the CBC is to television and radio broadcasting in Canada.

You read it right: Affirmative action is to our society what the CBC is to television and radio broadcasting in Canada.

Indeed, I can already sense your confusion -- "How does that parallel even make sense?"

Well, think of a society without affirmative action as television and radio in Canada without the CBC (and by extension, the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission, but we'll stick to the CBC for now). Let me explain...

The dominant and default force that drives media outlets and content in Canada and other liberal democracies is ad-generated profit -- plain and simple. Consequently, if we left it exclusively to market forces to dictate what appeared in Canadian broadcast media, whatever, and I mean whatever, programs that seized the attention of the highest number of Canadians would be the sole determinant of who and what dominated the Canadian airwaves.

In other words, if laissez-faire ruled media broadcasting in Canada, it is almost certain that Canadian TVs and radios would be overwhelmingly and almost totally dominated by a 24-hour cycle that would be saturated with the likes of the Jersey Shore, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, NFL games, Fox News and CNN.

Such a mind-numbing media reality would likely mean the following: Hockey Night in Canada -- gone. Peter Mansbridge -- gone. Diana Swain -- gone. Evan Solomon -- gone. Kevin O'Leary -- gone. This Hour Has 22 Minutes -- gone. As it Happens -- gone. Rick Mercer -- gone. George Stroumboulopoulos -- gone. And of course, Rex Murphy, himself -- gone...

However, thanks to the Canadian media's artificial market distortion that is the CBC, Canadians and Canada are invaluably enriched by home-grown programming and personalities whose worth to Canadian culture and community cannot be measured by the sways of public taste and mere profit margins.

Wait, are we still talking about affirmative action here? We sure are.

In the same way that the whims of the free market should not be what determines the continued existence of, and programing on, the CBC, the comfort level and cultural familiarity of managers and employers should not be what determines which qualified candidates get hired for jobs.

Of course, affirmative action/employment equity is not a perfect or ideal policy. That being said, such policies are probably at least as perfect as the CBC is at ensuring that Canadian content and culture is a common, widespread and accessible feature of radio and television in this country.

While the ideal would be for private media corporations to meaningfully incorporate Canadian content and culture into their broadcasts, it would be naive, imprudent and detrimental to Canadian culture if we left the market to do this. And the same can be said for Canadian society and employment equity.

While all Canadians would love to believe that, in the absence of employment equity programs, Canadian employers would be universally and truly committed to hiring on the basis of pure merit, (which is the exclusive province of no single people, race or culture) it is extremely unlikely that this reality would materialize in the forseeable future.

In fact, even with an official national policy of multiculturalism and a plethora of employment equity policies that have been adopted over the past three decades, Canadian corporatations, politics, and higher learning have made progress, but still show significant difficulties in fully developing a dynamic workforce of diverse and qualified employees, managers and board members.

I may be getting ahead of myself, because in all fairness, Murphy wasn't clear on whether his thoughts on the "inequity" of affirmative action extend to its Canadian manifestation of employment equity. But truth be told, I would be surprised if Murphy doesn't feel the same disdain towards employment equity in Canada as he does for affirmative action, as it's called across the border. Either way, I can totally understand if his stance is deliberately ambiguous on the matter. In fact, if I were him, I too would probably try to remain vague on the question.

After all, any direct shots Murphy might take at employment equity might have the unintended negative effect of pushing Canadians across this vast country to start wondering how it could be that a fella from Carbonear, Newfoundland could become such a dominant voice on Canadian social, political and economic affairs.

Now thatwould just be totally unfair...