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A few days ago, Marc Gage, a self-employed communications consultant, saw a job ad that caught his eye. The federal Department of Fisheries was seeking a regional communications director in Vancouver. It sounded right up his alley. The pay also wasn't bad -- up to $99,700 a year.

Mr. Gage wanted to apply, but one fatal flaw disqualified him: He's white.

The ad, which was posted on the federal government's Web site, was explicit. Under the heading "Who can apply," it said: "Persons working or residing in Canada and Canadian citizens living abroad, WHO ARE MEMBERS OF VISIBLE MINORITY GROUPS." The Employment Equity Act, it explained, defines members of visible minorities as being "persons, other than aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour."

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Mr. Gage says he's a pretty liberal-minded guy. But the ad sent him into orbit. "I don't care what colour you are," he told me. "You've got a right to be judged on merit."

Nurjehan Mawani is commissioner of the Public Service Commission of Canada, the body responsible for government hiring practices. She explains that the merit principle is not undermined by excluding certain people from applying. And she explains that "equality" is not the same as "equity." In other words, you can't always treat people equally if you want employment equity. "Treating people in the same way does not always lead to equitable results," she told me.

Some people might call these ads "race-based recruiting." But that would be uncharitable. Sometimes, Ms. Mawani says, "special measures" are required to reach out to the target groups. The Employment Equity Act permits and even encourages "special measures," of which exclusionary job ads are one example.

The federal government has resorted to special measures because it's desperate for its vast work force to look more like Canada. Just under 14 per cent of Canadians are identified as visible minorities. They make up 9 per cent of the labour pool, but only 6.9 per cent of the public service.

Three years ago, the government announced an action plan called "Embracing Change." It decreed that, by the spring of 2003, the public service would be hiring visible minorities for one in every five jobs -- twice the rate of their numbers in the labour pool. But despite an intensive recruiting campaign and millions of dollars devoted to management diversity training, it hasn't happened. The current hiring rate is only one in 10 (about the proportion of their numbers in the labour pool). And visible minorities (or vizmins) still make up only 6.8 per cent of the civil service.

Canada's top bureaucrats, including Alex Himelfarb, Clerk of the Privy Council, have decided that's not good enough. Progress, they insist, must come faster.

If you're one of the folks in charge of running, say, the Department of Fisheries, this is not an academic issue. This affects your bonus, your raise and your career prospects if you don't deliver.

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Even so, everyone in the bureaucracy rejects the word "quotas." Instead, they say "benchmarks," "targets" and "guidelines." "When we did this," Lewis Perinbaum, one of the authors of Embracing Change, said a couple of years ago, "we were trying to reassure people that this wasn't about grabbing their jobs but rather fairness and justice in the system. So benchmarks were to take us to that fairness and justice."

Not everyone is so sure that discrimination is the right way to achieve fairness and justice. Janet Smith is another former bureaucrat who helped launch Embracing Change. But this isn't quite what she had in mind. "When you do it this way," she told The Vancouver Sun, "what you're hiring is the skin, not the content."

Ms. Mawani says "restricted competitions" are relatively rare -- perhaps 3 per cent of all job ads. They're more likely to be used for executive jobs such as the one Mr. Gage had his eye on, because vizmins are even scarcer among management. Ms. Mawani doesn't know why this particular job was restricted, but you can bet someone's bonus was in danger.

As for Mr. Gage, a 50-year-old single father, he says that all he wanted was to "sit down and have a chat." After all, $90,000 positions with a decent pension aren't all that thick on the ground, even in Vancouver. Too bad he's out of luck.

Personally, I'd be thrilled if our public service looked more like Canada. I'd be even more thrilled if all our children grow up colour-blind. But how can we expect them to if we keep flogging them with the politics of identity? How can we expect them to be colour-blind when our own government insists on racial profiling as the basis for its hiring policy?

Racial quotas are ugly things, or so I was brought up to believe. No matter how lofty the goals that are invoked in their name, I haven't changed my mind.

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