Uncovering Racial Discrimination in Ontario: The Case for Race-based Data Collection

Srijoni Rahman

“There hasn’t been a time in the last 50 years when we have not marched on the streets of Toronto calling out to put an end to racism,” she exclaimed into the microphone.

“And so here we are again. … Here we are many years later doing the same thing, calling attention to the issue of racism. It really is a shame.”

Akua Benjamin, a scholar, activist, and feminist, was the first speaker of the night as Ontario’s brand new Anti-Racism Directorate began their public consultations last summer. Since that humid and muggy July evening, the province has held ten public consultations across Ontario. The consultations were open to all, and each individual had similar stories to share. Their stories were that of struggle, discrimination, historic trauma, and systemic and open racism.

Retrieved from National Post

Despite Canada’s standing as a leader for human rights on the international scene, systemic racism continues to be a reality for marginalized and racialized populations right here at home. Yet most of these stories, cases, and experiences remain anecdotal. The interaction of marginalized groups with public and private institutions are discussed over dinner, amongst groups of friends and often begin with “I have a friend who…” or “Last night, I was told that…” While these experiences hold tremendous value, for leaders that are focused on evidence-based decision-making, these anecdotes often go unnoticed. For those in power, it becomes easy to ignore these stories since spoken anecdotes do not hold the same weight as numbers and “legitimate” documented data.

For those in power, it becomes easy to ignore these stories since spoken anecdotes do not hold the same weight as numbers and “legitimate” documented data.

As a means to strengthen the power of these anecdotes of lived experiences, the Ontario Human Rights Commission recommends collecting race-based and identity-based data for programs across the province. In fact, data collection is a part of Ontario’s Human Rights Code and is aligned with Canada’s human rights legislation, including the Canadian Human Rights Act, Ontario Human Rights Code, the federal Employment Equity Act, and section 15(2) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This is because activists, human rights experts, and allies have found that data collection can play a vital role in illustrating that disparities in treatment and access exist in the system across social groups. Furthermore, it can allow organizations to identify gaps and foster an environment that nurtures human rights and equity strategies both internally and externally, in the delivery of their services.

The collection of race-based data in particular can be a tool that allows decision-makers and policy analysts to identify exactly where certain groups are overrepresented, where they are underrepresented, and where tremendous barriers exist. For example, a Children’s Aid Society study reported that Indigenous children were 130 per cent more likely to be investigated as possible victims of child abuse or neglect than white children, and 15 per cent more likely to have maltreatment confirmed.

Activists, human rights experts, and allies have found that data collection can play a vital role in illustrating that disparities in treatment and access exist in the system across social groups.

Activists and experts have linked this overrepresentation of Indigenous and Black children in care to a “harsher lens” that case workers employ when they work with marginalized families.  While the discriminatory treatment of marginalized groups are well-known, the collection of race-based data demonstrated the prevalence of these experiences. So much was the power of this data that following its release, Peel District School Board and the the Minister Responsible for Anti-Racism committed to collecting race-based data to address disparities in government programs, especially pertaining to children. In January of 2016, the University of Toronto also promised to collect race-based data to identify patterns and barriers in that institution.

While it is impressive that institutions are taking the lead to collect race-based data, the collection of various information across different programs can lead to large inconsistencies. For instance, some institutions might provide more options to self-identify than others. This makes the collected data incomparable, leading to difficulties in pinpoint the exact places where discrimination occurs in the system. Standardizing this data collection system across all programs can be a powerful lever through which the experiences and voices of marginalized people can be transformed into tangible evidence. The Ontario government can play a role here, as the province currently has no data collection system in place; however, the 2016 mandate letters directed several ministries to improve the system of data collection and identify groups that access or are unable to access their programs. Once a standard survey or questionnaire is created by the government, other sectors, including the private sector, can follow suit and collect similar data to make the information comparable. In turn, this tool can amplify the voices of activists and scholars and provide evidence of racism and discrimination. The data can then be used to provide equitable service delivery across programs, prevent future instances of systemic discrimination, and address barriers to increase accessibility.

Implementing such a policy would require establishing privacy and quality standards. The OHRC lists several recommendations for collecting sensitive information and ensuring that the collection, storage and use of the data complies with existing privacy laws. Collecting the data in a systematic, consistent and careful manner is not sufficient. The government must commit to using the data to actually address historic and systemic racism that further marginalizes certain groups and prevents them from accessing services. With evidence and data, the government must commit to employing actual strategies (beyond establishing an Anti-Racism Directorate with a $5 million budget) that can drive substantive changes in the experiences of marginalized groups.

Through the years, suppressed and marginalized groups have been speaking and raising their voices about injustice and discrimination. Often, their voices and stories are brushed aside as one-off incidents, illegitimate and insignificant. The collection of race-based data will add power to these voices and give their conditions the attention that they deserve. It will finally become obvious that beneath the rosy surface, marginalized populations continue to suffer from both subtle and open, vicious racism. For others, it will tell them that the tension in the air, the suspicious stares, that condescending tone of voice, the discrimination that they feel is not imaginary. It’s real and it is happening to you.

And it can no longer be ignored.

Update: Since this piece was written, the Ontario government publicly released its 3-year Anti-Racism Plan which includes the collection of race-based data in education, criminal justice and child welfare system on March 7, 2017.


Srijoni is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto and holds an undergrad degree in Public Administration with a specialization in Law, Justice and Policy from York University. She has worked as a Junior Policy Analyst at the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services and has experiences working at the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines. She is passionate about social justice and equity. Her research interests include immigration, education and multicultural policies. She wants to work towards dismantling the complex layers of systemic barriers faced by marginalized populations.