Commentary on “Disaggregated Demographic Data Collection in British Columbia: The Grandmother Perspective”, a report from British Columbia’s Office of the Human Rights Commissioner
By Jennifer Blatherwick
Translations of the executive summary of 'The Grandmother Report' are available in:
Arabic | Farsi | French | Korean | Mandarin | Punjabi | Tagalog | Traditional Chinese | Vietnamese
- Summary: Information from specific communities can help us understand the effects of systemic discrimination, but it must be collected and used with respect. BC is in the process of developing a legal and logistical framework to support disaggregated data, starting with 'The Grandmother Perspective' report from the BC Office of the Human Rights Commissioner.
The Demand for Disaggregated Data in BC: Why do We Need to Separate Out Data for Marginalized Groups?
Collecting data for a whole population can be misleading. If I told you that the 2019/2020 graduation rate for high school students in BC is 90%, that would be absolutely true – but it doesn’t show the whole picture. Graduation rates for students with diverse needs and abilities is 74%, Indigenous graduation rates are at 71%, and only 47% of children in care graduate. Despite the gains for those students, hard won by their efforts and support of parents, teachers and community, we are still far from equity. (Take every opportunity to celebrate the gains, though!)
The weakness in aggregate (whole population) data collection was brought to light by the COVID pandemic, where it became apparent that globally (Glover et al., 2020) and nationally (Tuyisenge and Goldenberg, 2021) marginalized groups were suffering disproportionately from the effects of the crisis. Realizing that specific data could provide better insight into how communities or individuals were experiencing harm, human rights commissioners across Canada called for the collection of disaggregated data to better understand the effect of the pandemic on racialized and marginalized people (CASHRA, 2020).
- Aggregate data: information collection from several sources or lots of people, and is used to look at trends across the whole population.
- Disaggregate data: information about a sub-group within the larger whole, broken out by factors, such as age, race, education, location, etc.
What Solutions Does the Report Suggest?
Summary: The purpose of collecting disaggregated data is to make systemic change to increase equity. The three recommendations:
- Create law to support and require the safe and useful handling of data
- Use software tools that are already created that support inclusive data collection and analysis
- Make sure to work with communities to be helpful, not harmful
To support the proposed 3-part framework, the report recommends the development and passing of an Anti-Discrimination Data Act (ADDA), that would outline and bring into law requirements for the collection and handling of data. This is an excellent beginning as a provincial standard for data would simultaneously reach many layers of government and types of organizations simultaneously. The report suggests that the implementation of a provincial ADDA act would support better compliance with the federal government recommendation of Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+), which BC adopted in 2019. GBA+ is a system of data analysis, which acknowledges that researching achievement gaps in the workplace goes beyond categorizing employees as binary men or women (Treasury Board, 2019), and allows for analysis of humans as intersectional beings, including the wide spectrum of influencing factors like biological sex, gender, race or disability.
The proposed ADDA would also support the BC Data Innovation Program (DIP) which links and de-identifies data, and allows anonymized data to be collected and stored with the same protections as personal data (Data Innovation, 2021). This heightened level of security is important in balancing the need for accurate data with the possible harms that the use or publication of the data may inflict on vulnerable communities. This choice is a thoughtful response to the concerns of the human rights commissioners who called for disaggregated data collection while simultaneously warning that all measures should be taken to prevent misuse of the data (CASHRA, 2020).
Although this report is directly addressed to the Speaker of the House, it is presented to the whole Legislative Assembly, and published openly to the website of The British Columbia Office of the Human Rights Commissioner, who issued their own press release (BC Office, 2020), which was covered in local and national news sources (CBC News, 2020; Wyton, 2020). Further, the website and report are optimized for screen readers and technological accessibility aids, and the executive summary is available in eight languages other than English, such as Farsi, French and Mandarin – though not in any of the Indigenous languages local to BC, such as the three most spoken Indigenous languages, Tsilhqot'in, Dakelh or Gitsenimx (Ministry of Education, 2020).
Translations of the executive summary:
Arabic | Farsi | French | Korean | Mandarin | Punjabi | Tagalog | Traditional Chinese | Vietnamese
Written in a combination of formal and informal language, the report brings together research and factual data, and supports conclusions with quotes taken from respected human rights activists and Indigenous leaders. The first full page of the report concludes with a quote from Gwen Phillips, who is a matriarch of the Ktunaxa Nation:
- "First Nations governments are not wanting to operate with the Big Brother mentality that we’ve all been groomed into believing in relation to what data does to us—it’s more like we want to come from the grandmother perspective. We need to know because we care. (p. 8, BCOHRC, 2020)"
In terms of improving the methods of research and data collection in the province, the report highlights the intention to change the way government has operated in the past in relation to historically disadvantaged populations, giving recommendations on how those communities can be “meaningfully involved throughout the stages of collection, storage, use and distribution of disaggregated data” (p. 24).
These suggestions are in alignment with the best-practices principles of Community Based Action Research (CBAR) as described by Ochocka and Janzen (2014), who detail the development the ethics of research undertaken together with the communities involved in the study. Co-creation of knowledge is an essential facet of CBAR, with an ideal of including participants in “designing, carrying out and using research while they contribute to the pool of knowledge” (Ochoka and Janzen, 2014, p. 20). Unfortunately, the BCOHRC’s short window limited the community engagement process, which is a weakness of the report, although recommendation is made that the provincial government follow up with a more complete consultation process.
Another vulnerability of the report is the focus on quantitative data to the exclusion of qualitative information. Part of decolonizing research is the inclusion of qualitative methods of knowing (Stanton, 2014), and though the authors of the BCOHRC report acknowledge the importance of qualitative data, they do not make recommendations on how to approach this critical source of both information and context. The stated purpose of the report is how data can be properly managed by government through the building of relationships with communities, but it is challenging to achieve that goal with quantitative data alone, minus the perspective provided by qualitative research.
One of the strongest parts of the report is where the authors grapple with the information given to them by the participants they did have time to consult, that “justice for systemically oppressed communities does not simply arise in documenting inequalities through disaggregated data” (p. 51, BCOHRC, 2020), but also must include taking action, and determining how the process of research can be bettered to avoid perpetuating the harms done in the past. The report recommends that immediate harms detected through disaggregated data be rectified without delay, even without the implementation of these analytical tools or data protections, without recommending a framework under which that can happen before the passing of the proposed ADDA.
This urgency is understandable, as the mitigation of harm is an important piece of restoring equity, but acting without consideration can perpetuate or even magnify harm. Okun (2021) discusses how White Supremacy Culture encourages decision making with speed, and how that artificial constraint can lead to binary either/or thinking. Building on Okun’s research in their text on redesigning school systems for equity, Dugan and Safir (2020) emphasize how important time and reflection are for inclusion, as thoughtful processes allow for listening to the affected voices, rather than rushing to solutions immediately.
What Happens Going Forward?
The “Disaggregated demographic data collection in British Columbia: The grandmother perspective” (BCOHRC, 2020) report is a proposal to change the way the government of BC collects, manages and uses data to measure discrimination against communities - but it has no power in itself. Legislation, policy and practical resources still have to come into existence. Relationship building was emphasized in this paper as the basis for creating both good data and good policy, but there was insufficient time before the report need to be completed to develop deep relationships, or to consult a broad range of people living within British Columbia.
BCOHRC also did not have the time or resources to consider how to treat qualitative data, which the report recommends as vital context for properly understanding quantitative data.
Context from the Past: How did the Grandmother Perspective Report Come About?
- Summary: The Premier asked the Office of the BC Human Rights Commissioner to make recommendations on how disaggregated data could be used in a helpful way to expose systemic discrimination, and keep accountability for any changes made. It's very important to remember differences between groups is a measurement of discrimination, rather than deficits in the groups themselves.
The BC government, which was elected in 2017 and re-elected in 2020, came into power at a time when British Columbia was recognizing inequity issues, such as high rates of child poverty, especially in marginalized groups (BC Coalition, 2017).
The new minority government promised a better relationship with the Indigenous people of BC, and a renewed commitment to the inclusion of groups that had historically and currently experienced discrimination, such as LGTBQIA2S+, persons with disabilities, and racialized communities (Guichon, 2017). In support of these promises, older legislation such as the BC Human Rights Code (2016), were reviewed and clauses protecting sexual orientation and gender identity were included. Newer legislation was tabled, including the Poverty Reduction Strategy Act (2018), which outlined clear poverty reduction goals, and the Accessibility Act (Bill 6, 2021), which will require the continuous updating and independent review of the accessibility legislation and policy throughout the province.
These new actions would exist in the older legal framework of the BC Human Rights Code, which received original assent in 1996, and aims to prevent discrimination, to create a society where all can freely participate, and to also to bring into law a means of redress for those who experience discrimination (Human Rights Code, 1996). As well, there is the national commitment arising from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2017) process, which included the presentation of 94 Calls to Action, detailing recommendations on how to end discrimination against Indigenous people in fields such as health, education and justice (Truth and Reconciliation, 2015), all fields which are shared provincial and federal responsibility
In 2018, the BC government further committed to the Tripartite Agreement, between the federal, provincial and First Nations Education Steering Committee, which outlines the responsibility of the provincial government to improve the educational outcomes of Indigenous students (BC Tripartite, 2018). Following this, the BC government was the first in Canada to ratify the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN General Assembly, 2007), passing the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (DRIPA) in 2019 which reaffirms that Indigenous peoples should be free of any form of discrimination, and that the speedy dismantling of racist, systemic policies is key to ending that discrimination against Indigenous people, including First Nations, Inuit and Métis (Declaration, 2019).
After all these public declarations and legislative enactments, the question of how improvement or progress would be reliably tracked had yet to be solved. Limited disaggregated data is provincially available to track results for communities within education, health care and human services, and what the data that is available is simply categorized and rarely intersectional (BC Human Rights, 2020).
- BC’s Office of the Human Rights Commissioner calls for new legislation governing disaggregated demographic data collection to address systemic discrimination in British Columbia. (2020). The BC Office of the Human Rights Commissioner. https://bchumanrights.ca/news/bcs-office-of-the-human-rights-commissioner-calls-for-new-legislation-governing-disaggregated-demographic-data-collection-to-address-systemic-discrimination-in-british-columbia/
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