VIA rail Canada
© The Canadian Press
Via Rail Canada offers discounts on train tickets to Indigenous people.
Via Rail's Indigenous ticketing policy is unprecedented, socially divisive and plainly unfair

Everyone loves a bargain. Senior discounts. Children discounts. Family rates. Special promotions of this sort are so common we barely notice them.

But what if instead of age or family situation, a company started offering discounts based on race? Would that seem fair or proper? It's not a hypothetical question.

Recently a Facebook ad alerted me to a race-based discount for train travellers: "Via Rail is offering a 33% discount for Indigenous people — a comfortable way to travel for less." If you are an Indigenous person, you can get a train ticket cheaper than anyone else.

While Canadians rightly have great sympathy and respect for Indigenous communities, the practice of charging different prices based on racial heritage sets a worrisome precedent that should have every fair-minded person concerned.

This promotion is apparently old news. Although I only noticed it last week — and everyone I've discussed it with since claimed to have never heard of it before — according to Via Rail Canada public relations adviser Karl-Philip Marchand Giguere "the discount has been offered for a long time."

The deal is "offered as part of our commitment to maintaining and enhancing relationships with Indigenous communities," Giguere told me in an email. "It is the spirit of collaboration and reconciliation that drives us."

Regardless of what the spirit of reconciliation may cause you to do, however, Canada has laws that forbid race-based discrimination. According to federal and provincial human rights legislation, all customers are supposed to be treated equally with regards to race, colour, religion, age, sex, gender identity, and on and on.

At least that's the theory. In practice, of course, human rights law allows for a wide variety of 'special programs' with the goal of treating some people better than others.

As long as a particular group can claim disadvantage — financial, historic or otherwise — discrimination in their favour is not only allowed, but often encouraged. That's why we have scholarships exclusively for high school girls and job ads that explicitly favour visible minority candidates.

As common as this may be, "applying a different price to different people based on race or culture is problematic," warns Queen's University law professor Bruce Pardy. "We may think we are all protected from discrimination, but in fact this depends on who you are and what group you belong to."

Pardy argues that attaching special privileges to certain groups weakens the concept that all people are equal before the law. "It's becoming a source of division in society," he says.

While women-only scholarships and handing out jobs to visible minorities are clearly objectionable on Pardy's fairness grounds, charging different prices based on race somehow seems even more outrageous — and divisive.

If Via Rail's pricing system becomes a precedent, Canadians could conceivably see all sorts of pricing menus that vary on the basis of heritage and/or claims to perpetual disadvantage. Should immigrants get a break on their groceries? Visible minorities pay less for gas? Why not free parking for women?

Is this a world anyone wants to live in?

Via Rail's promotion may actually be offside of existing human rights legislation. The Canadian Human Rights Commission says there must be a "demonstrable connection between a program [such as a discount] and its intended goal" of ameliorating a disadvantage faced by a particular group.

But how does cheap train travel remedy the very real problems faced by Indigenous people on or off reserves? Rather, it seems a transparent attempt at expiating white/corporate guilt. Via Rail wants kudos for being a friend to the Indigenous community, but in a way that disregards everyone else's right to equal treatment.

Depressingly, the Canadian court system appears entirely uninterested in defending the principle of formal equality. When I asked a lawyer at the human rights commission for an example of a special program that had ever been declared improper, he had to go all the way back to 1994, and a case that dealt only with age discrimination.

All recent case law appears to support officially sanctioned discrimination along racial or gender lines, as long as the proper group suffers as a result.

In 2016, a Canada Revenue Agency employee claimed 102 of 107 workers in his office were members of 'special groups,' and yet employment equity efforts continued unabated. As a result, he argued, able-bodied white males such as himself were at a severe disadvantage for promotions; his case was dismissed in federal court.

In other words, race-based discrimination may actually be a Canadian value, at least according to the courts. Better get used to it.

Peter Shawn Taylor is seniors features editor at C2C Journal. He lives in Waterloo.