Jon Cornish: Without collecting race-based data, we’re flying blind on solving diversity issues

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Please allow me to share a personal story. My father, Michael Forde, was a trained accountant from Barbados who emigrated to Canada, like so many immigrants seeking a better life. Sadly, a grim reality awaited him as he couldn’t find a job as an accountant after searching for four years on the West coast in the 1980s.

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This story is not only his. Many immigrants travel here expecting to find work and cannot secure employment. The work environment in Vancouver led him to return to Toronto, forcing him to have a long-distance relationship with his son, me. When I went to school at the University of Kansas, Michael worked to transfer his UPS job to Kansas. Unfortunately, Michael’s story was cut short when he passed away in 2003 at 51 years old from a diabetic coma.

While it is no longer the 1980s, the issues my father faced still exist today. Racialized people know there are barriers existing within our society. Statistics Canada reports that Black people in Alberta make less money at the same job. Three in 10 Black children live in low-income households, almost three times higher than the norm in Alberta. Black students believe they can graduate from university, but only 50 per cent believe they have the financial means to do so. When I founded a non–profit in Calgary, I searched for data to illuminate the issues racialized people know to exist. However, convincing someone these problems continue now requires us to work incredibly hard to credibly back up our lived experience.

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Today’s Canada is working to make our society more inclusive. To make our society as inclusive as it can be, we need to know more. The collection of race-based data is needed to better understand the realities of people’s lives. The Edmonton Social Planning Council states: “The purpose of collecting race-based data is to provide measurable evidence to address inequities, racism, and discriminatory practices.”

Some might say that race-based data is inherently racist. The truth is, not collecting data allows our society to maintain discriminatory systemic structures. Colour-blind policies keep us from tackling important problems. When it comes to the health issues related to COVID-19, these issues disproportionately affect people of colour. And it’s not just COVID. People of colour are often believed to have different pain tolerances or biological makeup and are thus given different treatment regimes. I was told I was good at football because I had extra muscles.

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In the case of my father, diabetes-related deaths are rare. Would Michael still be around if we had a better understanding of the medical treatment of all of Canada’s diverse peoples?

The Canadian Institute for Health Information believes our health systems need to be able to identify inequities experienced by racialized and Indigenous groups and to design and implement systemic changes to advance equity in health care.

Canada’s largest cities are more than 50 per cent of people of colour. However, the issues faced by the various people of colour are different. We lose the ability to do anything about the issues when we fail to recognize the specificity required to fix them. For example, there is an observable difference in economic outcomes of Black people born in Canada and Black people emigrating from other countries.

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There are also differences in the family experiences of Black immigrants and Black people born here. What could the next Jon Cornish achieve with a father in their life? The old narrative of the deadbeat Black father was once something I believed. Only now do I have the cultural context to see there was much more going on than I could understand as a child.

We have only just started to become aware of how our society affects people of different skin colours. This is an area of weakness in a diverse, inclusive Canada. I was born mixed and ended up taking my mother’s last name. However, I am visibly Black. Growing up in the predominately white New Westminster showed me people are often treated differently based on the colour of their skin. Racialized people deserve to have their problems heard and treated as real issues based on data.

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I am proud to share my father’s story because I don’t believe it’s over. How many others still face the issues he faced? With access to data identifying the inequities present in our society that stem from racism, bias and discrimination we can address these issues. Going forward, we can specifically target solutions and make our society, our country, more inclusive for all Canadians.

In support of this goal, I am calling on our provincial government to pass the private member’s Bill 204, the Anti-Racism Act, so people like my father, Michael, get to see their children create a better world.

Jon Cornish CFA became a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame after a career as a running back for the Calgary Stampeders. He is now an investment adviser and president of the Calgary Black Chambers.

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