Accountability Employment Governance Race and ethnicity

Why misleading, misinformed screeds calling for the elimination of race-based stats ought to be retired: In the (former) chief statistician’s words

Editor’s Note: This is a follow-up to a post earlier this month that promised to provide historical context.

Chief statistician: Why the census is counting visible minorities
It is in everyone’s interest that debate on issues related to employment equity ‘be supported by objective … data rather than by impressions, unfounded opinion or stereotypes.’
Ivan P. Fellegi

The Globe and Mail
Friday, April 26, 1996

This is the text of a letter sent this week to a number of Canadian newspapers by Ivan Fellegi, chief statistician of Canada, Statistics Canada, in response to criticisms of Question 19 in the 1996 census. (One critic, Reform MP Mike Scott of the B.C. riding of Skeena, had suggested that Canadians identify themselves as Martians to “send a signal to the federal government that Canadians have had enough of this garbage.”)

RECENTLY, Statistics Canada has been subjected to criticism for including
in the upcoming 1996 census a question which, according to the critics,
asks respondents to report their racial origin.

In fact, this question (Question 19) is not designed to provide information on race or racial origins of the population of Canada. Rather, it is intended to produce statistics on the visible minority population – statistics which are needed by both governments and employers to administer and assess the impact of the employment-equity legislation passed by Parliament in 1986. In 1986 and 1991, this information was derived from responses to the census questions on ethnicity, place of birth and language.

This approach cannot be used in 1996, however, since substantially increased numbers of people will report Canadian as their ethnic or cultural origin, thus providing no indication of whether or not they are members of a visible minority group.

For this reason, a direct question has been adopted, asking a sample of one in five households to report the population group(s) with which they identify. The question went through, as do all census questions, a rigorous consultation, testing, review and approval process. This process includes approval by cabinet and the prescription of the questions by the Governor-in-Council. Testing of the question demonstrated that accurate data would be produced and that people clearly understood the question and did not react negatively to it.

The answer categories listed in the question are those used in defining the visible minority population for purposes of the Employment Equity Act. Respondents are offered 10 choices: White, Chinese, South Asian, Black, Arab/West Asian, Filipino, South East Asian, Latin American, Japanese or Korean. They are encouraged to mark as many categories as apply, or they can write their own response in the space provided. No one is asked to fit himself or herself into a single category.

The answers to Question 19, along with the related census questions on place of birth, citizenship, immigration, ancestry and Aboriginal origins, provide information which is needed to deal with many important social and economic policy issues of concern to Canadians – issues ranging from national policies on immigration, employment equity, human rights and language to local concerns about schools, community support programs, and the delivery of health care and other services.

Much of the criticism of Question 19 appears to be directed more at the idea of employment equity than at the collection of statistics. Nonetheless, employment-equity legislation has been the law of the land since 1986, and the census is the only possible source of the objective information which is needed to administer the act and to evaluate its impact. It is in everyone’s interest that debate on issues related to employment equity, and the many other issues illuminated by census data on the composition and characteristics of our population, be supported by objective, impartial and reliable data, rather than by impressions, unfounded opinion or stereotypes.

I appreciate the concerns of individuals who are offended by Question 19, and who fear that it will be divisive and that the data may be misused. I would assure them that the information they provide will be used only for statistical purposes, and that the resulting statistics will be in the interests of all Canadians. Indeed, the Canadian Human Rights Commission considered this issue carefully, and in its recent report to Parliament concluded that asking Question 19 is “entirely reasonable in a pluricultural society which needs to understand itself.”

Question 19
From the 1996 Canadian census: “Is this person (mark or specify more than one, if applicable): “White; Chinese; South Asian (e.g. East Indian, Pakistani, Punjabi, Sri Lankan); Black (e.g. African, Haitian, Jamaican, Somali); Arab/West Asian (e.g. Armenian, Egyptian, Iranian, Lebanese, Moroccan); Filipino; South East Asian (e.g. Cambodian, Indonesian, Laotian, Vietnamese); Latin- American; Japanese; Korean; Other (specify).
“Note: This information is collected to support programs which promote equal opportunity for everyone to share in the social, cultural and economic life of Canada.”


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