Hearing this statement at End Exclusion 2010 on November 2 caused me to sit up and pay attention. Its content is quite counter-intuitive. What is so wrong with treating everyone the same? Isn’t that what equality is? However, when you apply this question to society there are multiple points where it is clear the hard and fast rule of treating everyone the same has not, in fact, created equality.
In this model all children, no matter who they are or their level of ability, have access to the same education. Unfortunately they do not necessarily all emerge from the education system with the same skill set. This has been seen in British Columbia, where cuts by the provincial government to the school system meant that students with learning disabilities do not have access to the “learning environment…required to succeed.” In a case brought forward by the family of a young man with a learning disability the BC Court of Appeals found that the service the province was required to provide was general education, not special education. Essentially, this means that the province is required to ensure that children receive an education, but are not required to ensure students emerge from it able to read. This shows exactly what equality as identical treatment means.
As Cindy Blackstock from the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada outlined for us on Monday evening, the case of Aboriginals is even worse. For instance, three times the number of Aboriginal children are in foster care than there were at the height of residential schools. The predominant reason given for taking these children away from their families and communities is ‘neglect’, which derives from poverty, poor housing conditions, or caregiver substance abuse. In this case, treating everyone the same means that any child living in these circumstances should be removed from their parent’s care. However, this kind of treatment very clearly only creates a kind of simplistic and terrifying equality which leaves everybody equivalently worse off. It does nothing to address the systemic issues creating the problem in the first place. It does nothing to address the broader questions about why living conditions on reserves are so poor and why so many First Nations families are living in poverty.
In the case of poverty, equality apparently means treating everyone the same regardless of disability, high unemployment levels or lack of affordable housing. The results of this “equal treatment”? An extremely unequal society. Perhaps those working for change need to clarify. What we are looking for on all fronts, in terms of poverty, access to society and any multitude of issues is actually substantive equality. This was a concept discussed by Yvonne Peters on Tuesday at the event organized by the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, Canada Without Poverty and the Canadian Association for Community Living. Perhaps people don’t think we owe equality of result, but the day and a half of talks emphasized to participants that we need to consider what our ‘equal treatment’ is achieving and whether it is equal after all.
Right now it could perhaps be argued that we are indeed, “treating everyone the same.” However, this kind of equal treatment produces the worst kind of results. We need to go beyond strict equality to something that actually benefits society. Sometimes equality simply demands that we treat everybody the same. But often it demands more. Canadians need to ask ourselves: do we want a society where everyone is treated exactly the same? Or do we want a society which recognizes the complexity of different situations and histories and takes positive steps to address inequalities?
I know which one I would choose. What about you?
Jenny Prosser is CPJ’s former policy intern.
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