Question Period: Race-Based Data Collection

By: The Hon. Jim Munson

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War memorial, Ottawa

Hon. Jim Munson: First, to the government leader in the Senate, I have a great deal of empathy for you. I’ve been thinking on this last day of this session that back in the day we used to prep Mr. Chrétien for Question Period every day, and he would listen intently. And you get prepped every day. However, he would then go out and say what he wanted to say, and it was probably the right thing to do, because he would speak straight from the heart.

There is a bit of a preamble to this question because I think it’s important. It’s about race. It’s an important factor, given the spread of COVID-19. And when we look at nursing homes, predominantly staffed by immigrant women and migrants and refugees — in Montreal up to 80% — they’re increasingly funded by the private sector, which is animated by profit making, so this business model has created conditions in which COVID-19 and other infections have rapidly spread. It has been said that the reluctance to speak about race in long-term care homes would appear to be contributing to what is called “race-blind reporting.” And we know the long-term-care workers are poorly paid and have to survive working everywhere.

In British Columbia, they recognized that issue, topped up wages and made them full-time workers, but in order to make profits, privately owned and operated care centre owners have relied on a racialized and gendered workforce of immigrant and migrant workers, and they’re women. In Ontario, 90% have suffered physical violence.

Two days ago, in a webinar at the Victoria Forum, which is a partnership between the University of Victoria and the Senate, the moderator and the consul general of Canada highlighted the necessity for the collection of race-based data to ensure better decision making on who needs what and when they need it, and now it’s happening in some cities.

My question to you, because of this colour-blind approach and because it has increased health inequities for black and Indigenous people, is this: Why has the federal government not mandated the collection of race-based data, especially given the evidence that suggests racialized communities have been some of the hardest hit by COVID-19?

Hon. Marc Gold (Government Representative in the Senate): Thank you for the question and for raising the issue, which has been raised many times and properly so in this chamber.

I’m not going to hide behind federal-provincial constitutional norms, only to say there are areas within which the federal government can act and others that fall to the provinces, especially with regard to health care.

We heard in the chamber just yesterday from Minister Blair about the evolution of thinking around the collection of race-based data used perniciously in the past to exclude many people from opportunities, including those in my family, but we have changed our understanding of its importance.

As I’ve said before in this chamber, the government is seriously considering, in response to the need to better understand the differential impact not only of the pandemic from a health of point of view, but the differential impact of our programs more generally on different communities in Canada.

The government is seriously considering ways in which, as the minister said yesterday, to move forward with disaggregated data, all the while making sure, as we say in French:

There need to be appropriate guidelines to ensure that we can protect this data.

The interest of Canadians is to make sure this data is used properly and not for discriminatory purposes.

My apologies to the translator for switching in midstream.

Senator Munson: Thank you for that answer, but I think all senators would back me up with this: COVID-19 has no borders. It doesn’t understand provincial and federal jurisdictions. There is Statistics Canada, and, to me, I think this is an impassioned plea to you and to the ministers to use Statistics Canada this summer to do that collection on race-based data because it would be extremely important because numbers don’t lie. I believe it would help us to understand what has taken place in all of these nursing homes across the country, particularly the ones that are privately owned. We seem to have been blind to what has taken place there.

I would ask you again, to put the emphasis on Statistics Canada, which has done an incredible job in showing who we are, how we feel as a nation and how we’re built as an incredible society, that statistics do not lie. It’s important that we get away from this colour-blind approach.

Senator Gold: Thank you. My answer was not meant at all to suggest that I was shuffling things off on the old constitutional shell game. I’ve answered the question with regard to Statistics Canada, I believe. Certainly it has been posed to the government. The government is seriously considering Statistics Canada’s gathering and analysis of disaggregated race-based data.

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