Too soon to say if StatsCan will bring in more racialized researchers, says official; ‘we’re just building those relationships’

To watch and see whether the model used for Indigenous peoples is needed or applicable to some or all visible minority groups:

Canada’s statistics agency is working with an expert advisory committee to better collect race-based data, but it is too early to say whether it will hire more racialized on-the-ground statisticians and researchers to help, says one official.

Marc Lachance, acting director of health, justice, diversity, and populations with Statistics Canada, acknowledged in an interview last week that while the country has made some strides in collecting Indigenous data, figures for some ethno-cultural groups are lagging.

“We have put in place a committee of experts that could specifically provide us guidance on—you know, we never really did a lot of work on the Black populations before, how do we do this?” said Mr. Lachance in a phone interview July 9.

In July 2019, the agency established the Centre for Indigenous Statistics and Partnerships, which consolidated “long-standing working relationships” with communities and organizations across the country into one centre. All research at the agency involving Indigenous people is “channeled through” this centre, which helps “provide relevant expertise and co-ordinate outreach to partners,” a July 6 statement from the agency read.

Included in the centre are 11 Indigenous liaison advisors, some of whom, according to Mr. Lachance, might work on reserves, and most of whom identify as Indigenous. The agency did not provide an exact breakdown, nor a dollar figure of cost, for these positions. The program began in the 1980s and positions are currently funded through the centre, said StatsCan spokesperson Peter Frayne in a July 10 email. The officers’ salaries and non-salary needs like travel are covered. “Funding  may vary from year to year based on the level of activities and engagement, but typically peaks during the conduct of the census,” Mr. Frayne added.

They are stationed across the country and look after a particular region, said Mr. Lachance. A StatsCan webpage lists advisors as covering Atlantic provinces, Manitoba, Inuit Nunangat, and others. “That program is probably one of our most established programs to engage communities such as the Indigenous [one] on Indigenous data,” he said.

“Their role is very key, specifically in ensuring there is trust with the data and a good rapport and relationship with StatsCan.” When the agency starts work for its census, for example, these officers act as ambassadors who promote it and in some cases seek permission to be able to go into communities, or at least notify Indigenous leadership about the agency’s intentions.

Mr. Lachance said it is too soon to say whether the agency will bring in Black community researchers to help it gather better race-based data.

“We’re working with experts right now. The plan is in the fall, we do more consultations with racialized communities, specifically to get their input on new approaches on how we can disseminate information” to those communities, he said.

Statistics Canada received $4.2-million over three years through the government’s anti-racism strategy last year. A portion of that funding was to allow the agency to set up an advisory committee on ethno-cultural and immigration statistics. That advisory committee will guide the body in setting up a “conceptual framework on ethnocultural diversity and inclusion as well as families of indicators to be able to track relevant ‘inclusion’ indicators over time,” according to a July 6 statement from the agency, which also said the committee had been formed and already met once, with another meeting slated for last week.

Mr. Lachance said it’s possible that the agency will create other “ambassador”-like roles for other racial groups, but he said “we haven’t made that decision yet, we’re just building those relationships.”

His comments come in the wake of an influx of public calls for better race-based data collection. The COVID-19 pandemic has harmed Black people in the United States at a greater rate than it has white people. Canada has not tracked pandemic outcomes by race or ethnic background.

To better understand the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on some communities, the agency has already made a push to collect more disaggregated data. It has been releasing a series of voluntary questionnaires, which change about every two weeks, and tap into a range of topics like parenting during the pandemic and the impact faced by those living with disabilities.

“How we continue this relationship depends on what the community needs and how we want to work closer with them,” said Mr. Lachance.

“We are accountable to Canadians about the data. The data is about what individuals are telling us about themselves, and they’re taking the time to answer the questionnaire and surveys.”

Some experts who spoke to The Hill Times this month noted that authorities and government institutions might face an uphill battle as they go about collecting race-based data, thanks in part to “longstanding disparities” in areas like housing, healthcare, and food insecurity in these communities.

Anna Banerji, a director of global and Indigenous health at the University of Toronto’s faculty of medicine, noted in an earlier interview that “there’s a lot of information that’s out there that’s partially used or distorted in the usage, and there’s no underlying [questioning of] what are the contributors to this.” She noted that in some cases, data has been used to justify racism and discrimination, a fact that Public Safety Minister Bill Blair (Scarborough Southwest, Ont.) also acknowledged this month.

Mr. Lachance said Statistics Canada’s researchers are well aware of this history.

“When we come to the analysis [stage], we need to ensure that the analysis that we do and analytical products [we put out] are sensitive to the perspectives of the communities,” he said, adding StatsCan consults national Indigenous organizations in creating or testing the Aboriginal Peoples Survey, which gathers figures to track the “social and economic conditions” of those living off reserve. Groups consulted include the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and the Metis National Council, he said.

The agency said that in 2017, Indigenous people were hired as interviewers and guides during the collection period, and organizations promoted and reviewed the analytical findings of the Aboriginal Peoples Survey.

“This ensures that findings are presented in an appropriate manner and ultimately results in stories that are balanced and include essential contextual information,” said a statement from the agency, which also noted that those interviewers and guides help to improve the reliance and quality of the analysis.

A lack of consultation has created barriers for Indigenous communities in the past, according to a January 2019 report prepared for Indigenous Services Canada and the AFN. In 2006, for example, the AFN withdrew its support for the Aboriginal Peoples Survey over concerns that it infringed on their right to control and govern that information.

In 2019, Statistics Canada shared data on suicide among Indigenous populations, a sensitive topic, as part of an effort to engage communities about the data it is collecting, said Mr. Lachance.

“Usually, we can go ahead and just print the suicide rates, but without the proper context and proper process…that report can also have some unintended consequences, because it does provide sometimes a negative picture,” he said.

That report, shared in June 2019, comes with an introduction that references intergenerational trauma and the effects of colonization and ongoing marginalization, specifically “the loss of land, traditional subsistence activities and control over living conditions” and a “suppression of belief systems.”

“We always feel that we’re accountable to our respondents, so the trust comes in different levels,” said Mr. Lachance. “It comes from the fact that the data that people provide us is confidential … and [in the assurance] of the quality and statistical rigour that we are bringing to the data,” he said.

Jeff Latimer, director general and strategic adviser for health data with Statistics Canada, told  the House Health Committee last week that a lack of standards between provinces and territories, for instance, makes it difficult to get other data like figures around deaths in the country. Part of that is because some jurisdictions still rely on paper-based processes for death registrations, making it difficult for the agency to paint a complete national picture, as it relies on these authorities to filter up data to the federal government through the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Source: Too soon to say if StatsCan will bring in more racialized researchers, says official; ‘we’re just building those relationships’

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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