Employment Financial security Governance Immigration Justice Race and ethnicity

Why Canada avoids asking about race, and why that’s a problem

Making waves in his first speech after taking office in 2009, outgoing US Attorney General Eric Holder then described his country as a “nation of cowards” afraid to confront racial issues. While the US had made remarkable progress on civil rights in the latter half of the twentieth century, election of a biracial president aside, there’s evidence to suggest it has recently regressed. There are anecdotes, like recent incidents in Detroit, Michigan and Ferguson, Missouri. But there are also race-based statistics collected, compiled and published by various US government agencies, from Justice to Labor to even the Federal Reserve.

If fear of confronting race is cowardice, what does one call fear of even asking about it? Because that’s where Canada is at the moment.

Earlier this month, the US Federal Reserve Board released results of its 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF). Piggybacking on the Fed release, the following week Canada’s Broadbent Institute released custom tabulations using Statistics Canada’s 2012 Survey of Financial Security (SFS). While StatsCan released SFS results back in February, Broadbent Institute thought it novel to publish the data by deciles, i.e. an equal ten-way split of families by increasing order, as the Fed did with SCF. (StatsCan’s SFS release used quintiles, i.e. an equal five-way split.)

The SCF collects information about family incomes, net worth, balance sheet components, credit use and other financial outcomes, much like the SFS does. Aside from the Fed’s release being far more timely and complete than StatsCan’s, there’s one glaring difference between the two surveys: The Fed’s SCF inquires about race.

StatsCan’s SFS does not. The more complete SCF demographic profile (and timely public-use microdata) enables the Fed as well as US academic and public policy researchers to provide more timely and insightful analysis. (See the FRB Bulletin, Brandeis University IASP Racial Wealth Audit initiative, and related public policy research from Demos.)

Given the limited demographic information collected by StatsCan, neither the agency nor Broadbent Institute could provide insight on racialised families’ financial security. That the purportedly progressive Canadian think-tank did not see fit to mention the glaring omission, especially given the timing of its release, is disappointing – although perhaps not surprising, given its diversity deficit.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (Department of Labor) monthly labor force report, based on the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS), likewise provides analysis of labour market outcomes by race.

StatsCan’s monthly Labour Force Survey (LFS) does not. Before being discontinued in 2012, the related (albeit voluntary) Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics (SLID) used to inquire about race. The limited information available suggests the Canadian Income Survey (CIS) replacing it does not; to date, StatsCan’s refused to disclose the 2012 CIS questionnaire contents.

The US Bureau of Justice Statistics (Department of Justice) provides race-based information on just about every aspect of the justice system.

The only race-based justice info StatsCan provides is police-reported racially-motivated hate crimes – which have risen in recent years. Corrections Canada provides the racial minority composition of its institutionalised population – which has also risen in recent years. Collecting data on the socio-economic factors that lead to racial minorities’ disproportionate victimisation and on the justice system that leads to their disproportionate incarceration isn’t as great a priority in Canada.

Well, at least there’s the long-form Census. Or rather, was. The only mandatory Canadian household survey that collected information on race became a voluntary survey in 2010. As expected, the change resulted in a significantly less reliable 2011 National Household Survey (NHS). One recent paper found the voluntary NHS and SLID now provide two different trends in racial minority labour market outcomes. It’s impossible to tell if either result is meaningful.

What’s curious is that a number of Canadian surveys that exclude questions on race – such as the SFS and LFS – include questions on immigration status. Why is that?

A StatsCan analyst advised that race had been among the variables considered for inclusion during past LFS redesigns. For rather convoluted reasons (fit, general interest, operational considerations, questionnaire length, cost, respondent confidence), StatsCan decided to choose between either asking race or immigration status. (The US and UK labour force surveys manage to ask both.) And race has been a lower priority for its “stakeholders” – which included Human Resources (now Employment and Social Development) and Citizenship and Immigration.

An alternative view is that poorer socio-economic outcomes for immigrants are easier to explain away as poorer assimilation (or the more politically correct ‘acculturation’). Including both race and immigration status allows researchers to factor for assimilation effects and focus on the impact of racial discrimination. One such research paper found that “for most visible minority groups, earnings gaps are identified among third-and-higher generation Canadians”. Not surprisingly, that paper relied on the long-form Census; it was published in August 2010, about a month after the current federal government cancelled the mandatory long-form survey.

Shortly before the referenced Broadbent Institute release, a fellow by the name of Tim Uppal took to twitter to recount a racist episode he and his wife had just experienced. For readers not familiar with the name, Mr. Uppal is Canada’s recently appointed Minister of State for Multiculturalism. He is now a “stakeholder”, in more ways than one. Hopefully he can sum up the courage Mr. Holder had when discussing the issue of race. Just asking why Canada avoids the question would be a good start.

The preceding is not an endorsement of Mr. Holder’s work on behalf of the US administration.


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