Sisters Sinit and Semhar Abraha knew powerful stories of the fear and anger sparked byinjustices faced by the Black community would be shared loudly to an audience of thousands at a Black Lives Matter vigil in Calgary.
So, when it wastheir turn to speak, they chose, instead, to focus on a single action they believe will help combat systemic and institutionalized racism in Canada — collecting race-based data.
They said the country is not doing enough to identify and react to the impact of racism and discrimination in health care, housing, education, employment and policing, among other facets of society.
“We know that the Black community is facing hardships, but we don’t know the nature of these hardships,” said Semhar. “When we don’t have the data, we can’t prove it.”
She saidthe lack of available information can further strengthen deniability and ignorance about the issues racialized communities in Canada are facing.
“When we have the data in our hands, we can pinpoint where we need to help, what we need to change in the community,” added Sinit.
Race-based information, they said, is key to real change.
They were met with thunderous applause last Saturday at an anti-racism rally hosted in Calgary following the death of George Floyd, a Black man from Minnesota who died after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes in late May.
His murder sparked protests globally, which continue to this day, drawing attention to police brutality and racial injustice.
Sinit and Semhar, both in their 20s, are community leaders at the University of Calgary, serving as president of the political science association and vice-president (academic) of the students’ union, respectively.
“Information may not seem as powerful as a protest, march or (thousands) of us raising our voices against injustice, but it is,” they said at the rally.
“Information showed us how George Floyd was murdered. Information has shown us what has happened to thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Information is showing us how (COVID-19) is affecting the most vulnerable in society.”
The Abraha sisters said the federal government already collects gender-based information to influence policies tackling gender-based discrimination. Now, the same needs to be done for race-based data.
As Canada grapples with the COVID-19 public health crisis, the push for better data collection has been top of mind for many as reports from across North America show racialized groups disproportionally infected with the deadly virus.
Paul Bailey, president of the Black Health Alliance, said people have been pushing for race and ethnicity-based data collection for decades to better understand why certain communities are facing particular health outcomes.
But there remains “fierce resistance” to collecting socio-demographic data from government and health officials despite credible experts pushing for change.
“That’s the biggest sign of systemic racism,” he said.
Anti-Black racism, for example, can have a “weathering”effect on people, explained Bailey. It can cause anxiety and depression and lead to long-term health impacts that make people, who are the subject of continued racism, more susceptible to chronic diseases.
Not only is it a determinant of health, but anti-Black racism is also a barrier to health care, he said.
“You can’t understand what you don’t measure and if you don’t measure, you can’t really understand the size, scope and scale of a problem and how it affects a population over time,” said Bailey. “We’re not just asking for the collection of that data, but what we are also asking for is that data to actually be used.”
He said that might be intuitive, but it’s not, using the example of the United States, which collects a swath of data but doesn’t use it well to target resources and interventions.
If Canada were to do the same, he said, racial and ethnic communities must be involved in the analysis and presentation of socio-demographic data, with clear rules on how the information will be used, to prevent harmful employment of it.
Currently, some socio-demographic data is collected through the census and the Canadian Community Health Survey. Beginning next month, Statistics Canada will begin to gather labour force data by race.
Advocates say it is not nearly enough.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, said people have the option to provide information on their ethnicity through provincial data collection, but it is not mandatory. She said it wasn’t always possible to get those details when COVID-19 cases were increasing rapidly.
Hinshaw said the province is working on a more “robust data collection around ethnicity” and will provide more details in the coming weeks.
That’s one of a few positive signs that officials are beginning to grasp the importance of this data, according to Dr. Aimée-Angélique Bouka, with the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine.
The original resistance, as Bouka described, was linked to the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic and the misconception that it was impacting everyone equally. But that discounted the social determinants of health, which Bouka calls a “blind spot” for many.
“The discomfort of that blind spot is mostly that it makes us feel uncomfortable,” she said.
“Although our country is beautiful from one coast to another, we can’t deny this systemic racism that it was built on, the colonial history of Canada and colonial policies that were implemented that cause health disparities.”
Bouka wants the Canadian government to not only collect data on race and ethnicity, but also immigration status, all of which are linked to public health outcomes.
She cited the disparities in COVID-19 infection rates in Alberta and Montreal. In High River, for example, the novel coronavirus outbreak at the Cargill meatpacking plant impacted a majority of employees who are of Filipino descent and, in Montreal at the long-term care facilities, upwards of 80 per cent of health-care aides were racialized women.
This datacould ultimately create a more equitable world for all, according to Sinit and Semhar.
“It will show the systemic and institutionalized racism for what it is and that there is no denying it and that a more just society needs real change and reform,” they said in their speech, taking turns speaking from a script.
“Helping the most vulnerable and the unheard helps us all.”
— With files from Jason Herring