Shaping a fairer future: Karen Jensen, LLB’92, makes history as Canada’s first Federal Pay Equity Commissioner

November 18, 2021

Karen Jansen

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Canadians to open their eyes to the differences in our society. And that presents an opportunity for Canada’s newest regulator.

On August 31, Karen Jensen became Canada’s first Federal Pay Equity Commissioner.

Jensen, who graduated from Western Law in 1992, is responsible for implementing the federal Pay Equity Act. The new law requires federally regulated employers, such as airlines, banks, broadcasters and crown corporations, to review their workforces and ensure similar pay is going to employees performing tasks of comparable importance and complexity.

It’s a tough job because it calls for a change in mindset. It’s not simply a case of quotas or making sure similar pay is going to employees with similar job titles. Regulated businesses must compare the value of the work done by all employees and ensure no systemic imbalances are embedded into their compensation methods. And that can be tricky. Pay inequity remains a reality in Canada, where, among hourly wage earners, a woman makes 89 cents for every dollar a man makes.

But it’s a challenge welcomed by Jensen, whose career has been committed to change. Her varied resume includes time spent as a social worker in Winnipeg’s north end, service on the Canadian Human Rights Commission and Law Reform Commission, and practise at a big corporate firm. Through it all, Jensen has devoted her career to removing the barriers some Canadians face due to their gender or background.

“I’ve always had a real interest in addressing inequality and systemic discrimination,” Jensen said. “I’ve always believed that there are many different ways of doing that.”

Canada’s Pay Equity Act aims to ensure that federally regulated workplaces are free from gender-based pay discrimination. One of the first goals of the law is to require employers to put a pay equity plan in place — and pay any compensation owing — by 2024.

Grocery clerks and long-term care home workers might be provincially regulated, and that’s outside the scope of the new federal law. Yet, Canadians have come to appreciate the crucial role these front-line workers have played in piloting us through the pandemic — and have noticed how much of that work is being done by women. And that’s the sort of thing that helps Jensen make her case.

“It highlights the extent to which we have undervalued work done traditionally by women — and often BIPOC women,” Jensen said. “Finally, people are saying, ‘I get what pay equity is about.’”

Jensen has been working to help others throughout her life. Law is her second career. She studied philosophy and psychology at the University of Winnipeg, then took a job as a social worker in the city’s north end. She acquired a master’s degree from the University of Toronto and contemplated a move to Western to do her PhD.

Before she finalized her plans, she turned to her clients for advice: should she pursue the PhD or should she consider another career, perhaps in law?

The advice was overwhelming. Her clients, many of them sex workers, said she should become a lawyer. “‘You can work on making the laws fairer for people like us,’” she recalled them saying. “So, I had registered to do my PhD at Western in clinical psych, and I switched.”

Jensen said she was drawn to Western Law because of the quality of the professors. “Western was definitely one of my top choices. I was lucky enough to get in and was really thrilled to be able to go there.”

She joined the legal clinic right away, starting with the landlord-tenant hotline, then picking up criminal court appearances, such as one in which she challenged a breathalyzer test — before she’d even taken an evidence class. She said she lost the case, but gained valuable practical experience. “I just learned an incredible amount on how to really litigate a case.”

A career fair was an eye-opener. She met Andrew Raven, LLB’76, and was struck by his passion for employment and labour law. “He was vibrating with enthusiasm and excitement for what he did,” she recalled. It was then Jensen realized practising in this area was one way to fight for change and diversity.

But she took a couple of notable detours before joining Raven’s firm, including doing an exchange with Laval University in Quebec City, and after graduation, clerked at the Supreme Court of Canada for Justice Peter Cory.

She did eventually work with Raven Law, then took on some roles in public service, including with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.

She did a brief stint as an assistant dean at the University of Ottawa’s law school after leaving government service, then tried her hand at management-side employment law by joining the Ottawa office of what was then Ogilvy Renault, a predecessor to what is now Norton Rose Fulbright. It may seem like an odd move for someone who had devoted her career to battling for the underdog, but Jensen said it made sense. A lot of her corporate clients wanted to embrace diversity and equity in their employment practices.

“They were actually trying to do the right thing, and, in many cases, were very much open to suggestions about how to do things differently in order to make their systems more equitable,”Jensen said.

Her return to public law came in September 2019, when she was appointed a full-time member of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, tasked with bringing the new federal Pay Equity Act into force on Aug. 31, 2021.

It’s a daunting task. There can only be one first Federal Pay Equity Commissioner and there’s a lot riding on her to get the new commission off the ground. But even as she literally makes history, she continues to think about others. In an interview about her new job, she’s just as likely to talk about her interest in mentoring young people and racialized women who are interested in going into law.

Jensen always has her eye on the future. And as Canada’s newest federal regulator, she has a fantastic opportunity to shape what that future might look like.

This story first appeared in the 2021 edition of the Western Law Alumni Magazine.