Data from the 2011 National Household Survey (NHS), which replaced the long-form census, indicate that racial status remains a significant factor in shaping advantage and disadvantage in the Canadian job market and in influencing the overall level of poverty and income inequality.
Put bluntly, non-whites do significantly worse than whites, in part because of racial discrimination.
With the aim of promoting employment equity, census data on employment and incomes have long been collected for "visible minority" persons, defined as those other than aboriginal peoples who are "non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour."
In 2011, one in five (19.1 per cent) of all Canadians belonged to visible minority groups, up from one in six (16.2 per cent) in 2006. Due to the changing mix of immigration since the 1970s, almost one-quarter of young people age 20 to 24 now belong to a visible minority group, and this proportion is much higher in big cities.
The NHS data likely understate pay and income differences between whites and non-whites due to under-sampling of lower-income groups, and are not directly comparable to census data for previous years. This is unfortunate since other Statistics Canada surveys of earnings and income such as the Labour Force Survey do not gather data based on racial status.
NHS data show that the incidence of low income for non-whites in 2010 was 21.5 per cent using the after-tax low-income measure (LIM), much higher than the 13.3 per cent rate for whites. The incidence of low income was higher than the overall visible minority average for Chinese-Canadians (21.6 per cent) and blacks (26.2 per cent.)
The median total income of non-whites in 2010 (half received more and half received less) was just $20,153, or one-third (32 per cent) less than $29,649 for whites.
A major factor behind these significant differences in income is the fact that many non-whites are recent immigrants who experience difficulty gaining recognition of non-Canadian educational credentials and work experience.
However, while members of visible minority groups are more likely to be recent immigrants than other Canadians, a high and rising proportion of non-whites were born in Canada.
Forty per cent of visible minority youth age 20 to 24 were born in Canada and thus have the same educational experience as other Canadians. Many others came to Canada as young children and were mainly educated in Canada. But they still encounter greater problems in the job market than whites.
2011 was a year of partial recovery from the Great Recession of 2008-09, and the overall unemployment rate averaged 7.8 per cent.
The NHS data show that the unemployment rate in 2011 was 9.9 per cent for visible minority workers compared to 7.3 per cent for white workers, a difference of 2.6 percentage points. The difference in unemployment rates between visible minorities and white workers was significantly greater for women (10.6 per cent vs. 6.7 per cent) than for men (9.3 per cent vs. 7.8 per cent.)
The unemployment rate in 2011 was especially high for Arabs (14.2 per cent), blacks (12.9 per cent) and South Asians (10.2 per cent.)
A high level of education did not narrow the unemployment rate gap between visible minority and white workers. In fact, the gap (7.9 per cent vs. 4.1 per cent) was greater for workers with a university degree.
Strikingly, there was a big difference in unemployment rates in 2011 between visible minority workers who were born in Canada and white non-immigrants – 11.8 per cent compared to 7.4 per cent.
The gap was a bit smaller but still significant for young visible minority workers age 20 to 24 born and educated in Canada and white workers in the same age group, also born and educated in Canada – 17.2 per cent compared to 14.1 per cent.
This racial difference in unemployment rates for non-immigrants obviously cannot be explained with reference to the undervaluation of foreign educational credentials and work experience that affects immigrants.
Nor can it be explained by levels of education, given that visible minority Canadian-born young people are more highly educated than their white contemporaries.
The fact that non-whites clearly operated at a disadvantage in the job market in the aftermath of the Great Recession in 2011 may reflect overt racial discrimination in layoffs and in hiring, or the fact that white youth have closer social connections to potential employers.
Previous studies based on census data, notably by Grace-Edward Galabuzi of Ryerson University, have shown that race is a significant independent factor influencing success in the Canadian job market. The fact of discrimination is, of course, hardly unknown to those who are on the receiving end, and Canadian-born visible minority youth are likely to be especially angry.
One possible solution is to enact employment legislation requiring employers to take active measures to eliminate discrimination and to promote more inclusive hiring practices. Such legislation still covers federally regulated employers, but Ontario's employment equity act was repealed in 1995 by the Harris government.
We are storing up trouble if we fail to discuss how to promote employment equity when the labour force is becoming ever more diverse, and the fact of discrimination is apparent.
Andrew Jackson is the Packer Professor of Social Justice at York University and senior policy adviser to the Broadbent Institute.
(Editor's note: An earlier online version of this story stated that the National Household Survey data used the low-income cut-offs [LICO] after-tax measure. In fact, the NHS data used the after-tax low-income measure [LIM].)