When It’s Measured, it Matters: Disaggregated Race Data in Canada

The third in a series of articles for Policy by Master’s students at the Max Bell School of Public Policy, McGill University.

Janoah Willsie

June 17, 2020

With the United States in its third week of protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, Canada has been looking inwards. We, too, have a racism problem. But we just aren’t measuring it.

In the US, Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people. In Canada, Black and Indigenous people face disproportionate levels of police violence, but we don’t have definitive national statistics to quantify it. Canada lacks any comprehensive guidelines or requirements to record race-based data, especially about police brutality.

In a press conference last Monday, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh called for an implementation of race-based data collection in policing, the justice system, health care, education, and employment.

This kind of disaggregated data is essential for policy makers, and frankly, society in general. It exposes hidden data trends, establishes the scope of the problem and makes vulnerable groups visible.

Ending systemic racism in Canada requires data, both to measure the size of the problem and to track progress towards equality.

Advocates have been calling for this kind of data to be collected in Canada for years. The current Liberal government has a $45 million three-year anti-racism strategy which dedicates $6.2 million to improve data collection. However, the country is still waiting to see the results of these promises.

This hasn’t even been the first time this year the issue of race disaggregated data has been raised. Early in the COVID-19 crisis, reports from the US suggested that the virus was disproportionately impacting Black Americans. Further research found that Black Americans are dying from COVID-19 at a rate 2.5 times higher than white Americans.

Despite the evidence that race may play a role in the pandemic, Manitoba, with just 0.3 percent of COVID-19 cases in the country, is currently the only province collecting race-based COVID-19 data.

When asked about it, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams said it wasn’t a priority and that everyone, regardless of race is “equally important”. The Public Health Agency of Canada says they’re still “considering” the idea of gathering race-based data highlighting that they have a lot on their plate and must determine which data to prioritize.

By not addressing the racial divide in health outcomes, the government is implicitly deciding to prioritize white Canadians.

Following the backlash to the provincial government’s response, Toronto Public Health unilaterally developed its own system of race-based data collection and, in findings similar to the US, found that Toronto neighbourhoods with high Black populations are the hardest hit by COVID-19. Policy makers seem to be uncomfortable with the idea of collecting racial information, preferring to adopt a “colour blind” approach. They have expressed worry that this data may further entrench racism and inequality.

The problem is, racism was there to begin with, and it’s proving to be deadly.

In 2017, the United Nations Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed concerns that Canada did not have comprehensive disaggregated racial data, “rendering invisible” the different experiences and realities of the diverse racial groups in Canada.

This is the heart of the problem. Across Canada, jurisdictions are effectively disappearing the experience of racialized communities. When these experiences are brought to the fore, it can lead to systemic change.

In 2010, a Toronto Star investigation found that police carding in Toronto, or the practice of stopping someone without reason and documenting their personal information, disproportionately targeted Black men. They found that a Black person was 17 times more likely to be carded than a white person in downtown Toronto. This revelation lead to a 2017 ban on random carding in Ontario.

Many advocates rightly urge that this action was not enough. There’s so much work left to do. But what’s clear is that this data leads to greater transparency and that transparency leads to more effective policies and more accountable policy makers.

Systemic racism in Canada will be addressed when we have an understanding of the different realities faced by racial groups in Canada. Black Canadians, Indigenous Canadians, Canadian People of Colour do not experience the health, justice, and policing system the same as white Canadians. We need to quantify, acknowledge, and address the racial inequalities baked into the fabric of our country.

Race-based data must be integrated into every data collection product. When we have this data, we will no longer be able to hide behind our ignorance.

They say sunlight is the greatest disinfectant. Collecting race-based data will let the light shine in on the Canadian system, exposing its problems and pointing us towards a more equitable future.

Janoah Willsie is a Master’s student at Max Bell School of Public Policy, McGill University.