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Anil Arora, chief statistician of Canada, at Tunney's Pasture in Ottawa on May 5, 2021.

Ashley Fraser/The Globe and Mail

Canada’s national statistics agency will spend $172-million over five years improving the way that it captures data on race, gender and sexual orientation – a move aimed at filling long-standing gaps that have historically left the experiences of millions of Canadians invisible.

The funding, announced in the federal budget, is among the largest investments in a new initiative that the agency has seen in recent history, the country’s Chief Statistician Anil Arora told The Globe and Mail.

The plan is to expand existing research surveys with questions designed to paint a fuller picture of the population, Mr. Arora said.

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Statistics Canada did this with its Labour Force Survey last year. Knowing that the economic fallout of the pandemic was affecting certain communities differently, the agency added questions about race, as well as working from home, job loss, capacity to meet financial obligations and applications to federal COVID-19 assistance programs.

“It’s not just about the average or what the ‘quote-unquote’ typical Canadian looks like,” said Mr. Arora, who is the head of Statistics Canada. “Canadians have been saying: ‘We want to see our diversity, as we see it in our society, reflected in our story – our statistics.’ … Better data, used responsibly, should lead to better outcomes.”

The census – which Canadians have been receiving in their mailboxes this week – does collect detailed demographic information, but it’s conducted only every five years. The goal, said Mr. Arora, is to incorporate more disaggregated data in other research projects.

The Globe has been chronicling the country’s data deficit for several years, examining its impact on businesses, citizens and government decisions.

This year, The Globe published an investigation called The Power Gap, which married dozens of publicly available datasets that had never before been linked to reveal how women working in the public service have struggled to advance past middle management. In the series, it was possible to assess the work force by gender, but not other indicators, such as race, because the information is not available.

(The Globe was able to determine the number of racialized women among the top 1 percentile of earners – it was about 3 per cent – by individually contacting and researching the backgrounds of hundreds of women in this bracket.)

In announcing the funding, the federal government acknowledged that the current system is inadequate.

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“At present, Canada lacks the detailed statistical data that governments, public institutions, academics and advocates need in order to take fully informed policy actions and effectively address racial and social inequities,” the budget read.

“Journalists and researchers have long worked to tell the stories of where and why disparities in our society exist – whether among racialized groups or the power gap that exists between men and women that leads women’s careers to stall,” the document continued. “Better disaggregated data will mean that investigative efforts or research projects like this will have more and better data to analyze.”

Wendy Cukier, the founder and director of Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute, said she would like to see the federal statistics agency use the new resources to connect existing datasets. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of government agencies collect information on Canadians, but they exist as silos.

For example, regional development agencies distribute government funding to small businesses, but there is no easy way to measure how many jobs these loans and grants create or the extent to which certain groups have more access to this money. If the data could be cross-referenced with information from the Canada Revenue Agency, it would allow policy-makers to better determine the impact of the investments, she said.

“They’re all government agencies. Why are there not standardized reporting mechanisms around innovation and economic development? And ideally disaggregated, so we know which percentage is going to women, to Black-owned businesses,” Prof. Cukier said. “I would love to see Statistics Canada as the central repository.”

Mr. Arora said linking existing data is one of their key priorities and it’s something the agency has already been working on.

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“We know that if you’ve got an issue in the justice system, when you go back and trace [it] there are issues of housing, there are issues of health and education,” he said. Within those records, there may be pieces about the individuals – such as whether they’re from a rural or urban community or whether they have a disability – that will make it possible to evaluate trends.

Sharing information between entities and across jurisdictions does raise privacy considerations, he said, but it can be addressed by stripping the information of names and replacing them with identifying numbers that would be consistent across datasets.

“Data isn’t going to miraculously make us inclusive, but it will help illuminate where the troubles and issues and gaps are,” Mr. Arora said. But he cautioned that there are always going to be holes in information.

“As soon as you understand something, you ask a better question. And once you ask that question, you need more data.”

A two-and-a-half-year investigation by The Globe and Mail into the wage gap has revealed a bigger problem: The Power Gap between men and women at Canada’s public institutions. Investigative reporter Robyn Doolittle runs through some of the key takeaways of how and where men outnumber, outrank and out-earn women in Canada. You can see more at tgam.ca/powergap

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