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Opinion: To improve Black health, we have to study it

Canada’s data collection cannot continue being colourblind
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SKYLAR CHEUNG/THE VARSITY
SKYLAR CHEUNG/THE VARSITY

A report released in 2018 by the Ontario Human Rights Council revealed that a Black individual in Toronto was nearly 20 times more likely to be fatally shot by police than a white person. This data opened the eyes of many people across the city and country alike. It prompted the Toronto Police Service to commit to “start tracking and reporting the race of people involved in certain encounters with police,” according to CBC News.

News of the Toronto police’s commitment gives a sense of hope for change, but nevertheless highlights just how much information is lacking when it comes to racialized experiences in Canada. This lack of data was similarly detailed in a recent report by a team of University of Toronto researchers, led by Onyenyechukwu Nnorom, a faculty member at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. The study found that a “lack of health data [is] hurting Black Canadian women.”

The report, which was dedicated to finding data on cervical and breast cancer as it relates to Black Canadian women, details that even though they had to maintain a broad search for relevant studies, they were only able to find 23 studies that could be included in their synthesis.

This lack of studies unfortunately reinforced what they had noticed in their years of doing research centred around Black Canadians: that there is a “lack of race/ethnicity-specific health care data in Canada.” Even the data that they were able to include in their study was plagued by research that did not include Black Canadian women, or too often conflated Black participants and their results with that of other people of colour, as if they were “one, homogenous, racialized category.”

However, they were still able to determine that Black Canadian women may be under-screened for two cancers that, according to evidence from the United States, disproportionately yield more severe outcomes for them. The need to use data outside of Canada in and of itself is a glaring example of just how detrimental this lack of data is for future Canadian researchers hoping to build upon their findings.

The push for this policy and others like it to be implemented throughout Canada has been a topic of discussion for many years. The core argument being that the country’s solution to systemic racism has been to disregard race completely. The implications of this ideology at the governmental level are detrimental.

The appeal of this phenomenon of ‘not seeing colour’ is clear as expressed by faculty from the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Georgia. It allows perpetrators of racism to completely negate responsibility by “[maintaining] an egalitarian self-image.” In the case of Canada, there’s no need to address the debilitating effects of institutionalized racism if the data doesn’t show it exists, simply because it’s not being collected.

The United States has its own unique culture, politics, environment, and other factors that differentiate it from Canada. While this may not seem essential when it comes to health data, the report makes it clear that it is vital to arriving at clear results because “such ethnic and cultural differences between and within countries may influence different health behaviours and outcomes within the Black Canadian population.” We simply cannot continue looking to other countries’ data to influence our understanding of the health of racialized Canadians.

Furthermore, this lack of data and therefore, knowledge of needed action, makes breaking down the pillars of systemic racism impossible, which further results in frustration among minority groups due to the relative lack of commitment to anti-racism action. It’s not a myth that institutionalized racism exists in Canada, but without the numbers and evidence to support this claim and the ways that it affects Canadians, it virtually presents itself as one.

The unfortunate truth is that Canada only very recently began to take the steps to fill this gaping hole of information — one example being Ontario’s Anti-Racism Data Standards, which were implemented in 2017.

However, just months after Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives were elected, committees dedicated to advancing the standards were disbanded. There seems to be no commitment from the Ford government to host the mandatory annual anti-racism conference.

There are quite a few U of T researchers attempting to fill this gap, but it is challenging to continue doing their work when, in Canadian society, there’s no data collection in the health care system to support them. It’s a cause that needs to be addressed not just by the groups that it affects, but the Canadian population as a whole.

Researchers Aisha Lofters, Nnorom, and Nakia Lee-Foon, wrote to The Varsity about this lack of data, and its effect on their work. They explained that the absence of such necessary information points to a greater fault within the health care system itself leading to health care disadvantages among racialized populations.

Responsibility in championing a change in this system falls on everyone’s shoulders as well. Lee-Foon explained that a “combination of institutional and on-the-ground advocacy is vital to push for this data.”

Universities, researchers, and individuals across Ontario and the country alike need to advocate for a deliberate effort to follow through on better data collection.

This can and must be applied to all sectors of Canadian society. If we are going to address issues such as the disproportionate presence of Black and brown bodies in Canadian prisons, or missing and murdered Indigenous women, and other such cases of systemic racism head on, we must first take the steps to dismantle Canada’s own egalitarian image by systematically collecting the much-needed data.

Nadine Waiganjo is a second-year International Relations student at University College. She is a columnist for The Varsity’s comment section.