B.C.’s human rights commissioner is calling on the province to require the collection of race-based data to help address racism and discrimination.
Commissioner Kasari Govender said Tuesday that collecting data that includes information on demographic factors like race is essential to understand the impact of discrimination and address inequities.
But the approach needs to respond to the needs of racialized communities and be oriented towards action, she said, particularly as the pandemic intensifies gendered and racial inequalities in health and employment.
“This is a time of both pandemic and protest, and we are in a time of great transformation in our society,” said Govender in an interview. “And I think it’s so important in this moment of transformation to say, ‘How do we make all of the promises of human rights real in people’s lives?’”
Advocates for First Nations and racialized communities have said for years that a lack of race-based data prevents governments from responding equitably to structural problems and crises.
B.C. doesn’t know, for example, whether Black people here are more likely to become ill with COVID-19 as data across the United States and in Toronto has shown. The province also doesn’t know the racial breakdown of people who access subsidized housing.
After years of campaigning by advocates, in June Premier John Horgan asked Govender and Information and Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy to recommend ways the province could move forward in collecting such data while respecting individual privacy.
Govender’s office released a report Tuesday that recommends new legislation, the Anti-Discrimination Data Act, to “legislate the collection, use and disclosure of demographic data for social change.” The government would be required to collect data that included “sub-categories of information, for example by ethnic group, gender, occupation or educational status.”
The act would support the implementation of the B.C. Human Rights Code and support existing poverty reduction and Indigenous rights legislation.
“It would require government researchers to collect data in service of systemic equality, that the data can be collected explicitly for the purpose of moving the needle on systemic inequality,” said Govender. “So that’s one way in which the potential harms of this kind of data collection can be mitigated against.”
The report calls for a relationship-based “grandmother perspective” in collecting and using the data, contrasting that with a “Big Brother” approach to gathering information.
Coined by Gwen Phillips of the Ktunaxa Nation, the grandmother perspective calls on government to seek only the information that is needed to care for people and focuses on building trust between researchers and community. Phillips is a champion of the B.C. First Nations Data Governance Initiative, which aims to support Indigenous data collection and sovereignty.
“We want to better care for our neighbours, and we want government to better care for its citizens,” said Govender. “So what data is needed in order to do that?”
The proposed act would require nation-to-nation collaboration and consultation for data collection initiatives in First Nations, in accordance with the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act.
For other racialized communities, the report recommends legislating a community governance board to develop a data governance and storage model, as well as a secretariat to support it.
Public and advocate consultations would also take place for projects that affect specific communities, such as looking at people who are detained in mental health-care facilities.
Legislating the recommendations would be the best way for government to ensure such a huge undertaking is done equitably and will cross-ministry support, the report says.
“It’s important that this doesn’t happen in a piecemeal way across ministries or across public institutions,” said Govender. “It needs to happen in a comprehensive way, and it needs to follow this motivation around really paying attention to how this is going to impact people in the community.”
Govender, who only had a few months to prepare the report, hopes to continue consulting with communities if the province moves ahead with her recommendations.
It’s important this work isn’t done to simply measure racism or inequality, but to take action, she said.
“The question that needs to be at the forefront is ‘How does this data move us forward?’”