Kasari Govender is British Columbia’s first independent Human Rights Commissioner. BC’s Office of the Human Rights Commissioner exists to address the root causes of inequality, discrimination and injustice in the province by shifting laws, policies, practices and cultures.
The “grandmother perspective” to data collection, which I first learned from Gwen Phillips of the Ktunaxa Nation, suggests that government should collect data as a grandmother would collect information about her family: to better care for them, rather than exercise control with a big-brother mentality. This perspective formed the basis for the recent recommendations on disaggregated data collection from British Columbia’s Office of the Human Rights Commissioner to the provincial government.
A grandmother collects her grandchildren’s stories like pencil marks on the wall, measuring their growth. Data can also tell a story – one that helps us to understand people’s needs at a community level. Policy makers, too, need good information to design good law, policy and services.
This week, the B.C. government introduced the Anti-Racism Data Act, new legislation to collect disaggregated demographic data. The new law, if passed, facilitates the collection of personal information for the purposes of identifying systemic racism and advancing racial equity.
Disaggregated demographic data are information based on different aspects of our identities: for example, information broken down by race, gender or educational status. While the Statistics Canada census already collects disaggregated data in relation to the general population, this new law will facilitate the collection of such data in relation to government policies, practices and services, such as health care. Comparing statistics based on these two datasets can reveal patterns and inequalities. Information about inequalities, in turn, can help us design better policies to tackle systemic discrimination. We can’t act on what we don’t know.
Importantly, data must be collected on more than just racism in order to be effective. If we can’t understand how gender, race, age and other factors work together or intersect to inform our experiences in the world – and more accurately, how sexism, racism, ageism, ableism and so on inform our experiences – then we won’t be able to create good public policy that meets people’s real needs.
Race-based data only tell part of the story. For example, we know that in Canada, racialized men earn 78 cents for every dollar earned by white men, according to a 2019 Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report. But that gap widens significantly for racialized women, Indigenous women, transgender women and women with disabilities. Indeed, racialized women earn only 59 cents for every dollar earned by white men.
Treating all racialized people as a homogenous group not only obscures the problem, but it also reinforces it by leading to solutions that are only tailored to the experiences of the dominant subgroup within that category.
We may identify racist stereotypes as being one of the barriers contributing to the wage gap. But we also need to understand that stereotypes of racialized women may be quite different than stereotypes of racialized men. Ignoring these gendered differences silences and omits the experiences of racialized women. We need to truly understand the scope and complexity of the wage gap in order to solve it; intersectional data collection and analysis is key to that end.
However, there is a serious downside to collecting all this information. Despite its power to focus the gaze of policy makers on real world inequities, data also have the power to reinforce negative stereotypes, and some people have legitimate concerns about sharing this information.
In recent recommendations from my office, we called on the provincial government to put control over data in the hands of those from whom the data are being collected. For example, disaggregated demographic data about a First Nation should only be collected in service of that community and upon the consent of that Nation, and used at their direction. The new legislation creates advisory roles for those who are directly impacted to embed this democratic approach to data and to counter any harms it may cause.
For decades, racialized communities, scholars and activists have been calling for this kind of legislation. Over the last two years, the public calls for disaggregated-data collection have grown louder. Protests against police brutality, a growing awareness of the ways in which racism impacts health outcomes, including those of COVID-19, and a movement to push back on the mainstream emergence of white nationalism have brought systemic racism into the consciousness of the masses. While data may not be the most glamorous call to action, they may be one of the most fruitful.
The new legislation is an important marker of our growth toward a more equal society. However, data collection is just one pencil mark on the wall; the next milestone to measure will be whether we are able to use it to create real social change. Implementation requires using intersectional data and a meaningful community governance model to turn information into action.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.