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President of the Treasury Board Stockwell Day speaks with the media in Ottawa, Monday May 3, 2010.

Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The Conservative government is taking aim at an employment-equity policy that favours applicants from historically disadvantaged groups, saying no Canadian should be barred from applying for a job based on race.

Stockwell Day, president of the Treasury Board, ordered a review Thursday into a government job-application process that restricts some jobs to one or more of the four groups targeted by Canada's employment-equity policy: aboriginal people, visible minorities, women and people with disabilities.

The move came in response to the story of a Caucasian woman who tried to apply for an administrative assistant's job in the federal ministry of Citizenship and Immigration, only to find the competition was restricted to aboriginals and members of a visible minority. Such a practice is permitted under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and is intended to help government meet diversity hiring targets.

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Jason Kenney, the minister of Citizenship and Immigration, said he was shocked by the woman's story and consulted with Mr. Day, who has oversight of the public service. Hiring should be decided on merit, not ethnicity, Mr. Kenney said.

"We can continue to achieve greater diversity in the public sector without prohibiting people from applying for jobs on the grounds of their race or ethnicity," Mr. Kenney said. "It's a very simple principle and I think it's something the vast majority of Canadians would appreciate."

The review raised concerns with the Opposition, who accused the Conservatives of abandoning vulnerable groups for the sake of motivating their political base.

The woman who applied for the job is Sara Landriault, an Ottawa-area blogger and mother.

"The question was my race and gender, I answered white and the application as a whole stopped and said I did not meet the criteria for this position," Ms. Landriault said in an e-mail Thursday. "I do not wish to take anyone's job, my only wish was to be allowed to apply based on my qualifications. No government should have the right to ask you your race or gender to see if you are qualified for a job. That is discrimination."

NDP MP Pat Martin said he supports extraordinary measures to get the federal government closer to its employment-equity targets.

"We shouldn't apologize for doing that. Sometimes the pendulum has to swing the other way before it finds balance in the middle," Mr. Martin said. "I think Stockwell Day and Jason Kenney are pandering to their neo-conservative base. They're using an anomalous incident to attack the whole notion of employment equity and affirmative action."

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Liberal MP Marcel Proulx also attacked the Conservative position.

"If they do what they're trying to do then there won't be any protections for aboriginals and visible minorities," he said. He accused the Conservatives of using this controversy to try to divert attention from the resignation of the head of Statistics Canada over the census. The Liberals said the two controversies, taken together, suggest the Conservatives don't want to see the country as it really is.

Mr. Kenney scoffed at that notion.

"Excluding Canadian citizens from applying for employment in their government is profoundly illiberal. What we're articulating here is an essentially liberal value of equality of opportunity and equality under the law. If the Liberals were true to their liberal values they would see that," Mr. Kenney said. "I don't have any problem with employers taking into account the objective of diversity in the hiring process. If someone merits the job we don't object to that being a consideration."

Myer Siemiatycki, who teaches politics at Ryerson University, said the policy review raises alarm bells.

"It's an announcement that has echoes of the politics of the census decision. It's about optics, it's about sending a signal to the traditional base of the Conservative Party about the kind of harder line social conservative positions that the Conservative party has tended to say they've left behind but seem to be returning to," he said.

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"The reality is that this Act is in place for a reason. There is a dramatic under-representation of these groups to whom it applies in the public service. ... This Act is intended to remove barriers and level the playing field."

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