Do we want Canadian Governments to Collect Data Based on Race?

Commentary, Culture Wars, Peter Holle

In a famous 60 Minutes interview, Mike Wallace asks Morgan Freeman how to get rid of racism. Freeman instantly responds by saying that it’s easy: stop referring to him as a Black man and he will stop referring to Wallace as a White man. Freeman says only by removing racist labels will we get rid of racism.

Currently, there is a lovely video circulating, of very young children of different races being asked what the differences are between two friends of different races. In one clip a child points out that she likes swimming while her friend likes running, or that one likes math and the other likes English. The point is that these children don’t see each other by their race, but by who they are.  

A long-standing belief by Canadians is that we see each other as individuals – not by what race we are. That is until the Prime Minister and the leader of the federal NDP. They want to change all that. In the past – Canada and the USA collected data very differently. In the USA  race-based data is collected as a matter of course – on driver’s licenses, insurance documents, health records, educational documents – and on and on. In Canada, we have purposely avoided that. The only document that we collect racial data on is the census form – which is anonymous – and it is collected once every ten years.  

No Prime Minister in Canadian history has used identity politics more than our current Prime Minister. Many Canadian politicians use racial identities in campaigning – but this has been taken to new extremes in making constant references to various ethnic groups on a weekly basis. It has been effective on the campaign trail, but it is questionable whether it has been effective in running our country. Now, at the urging of the federal NDP leader – with the implicit understanding that to obtain the NDP’s support for the Liberal government’s minority government – the Canadian Government must now start collecting racial data. Although it will start with health information on the current pandemic, this is simply the wedge to begin to segment our society more and more into tiny competing groups. If it is to be used on health data then it can be used on income tax forms, driver’s licenses, school transcripts, and on and on. 

Countries like Canada and the USA now have 15% of our children being mixed race – and rising by five percent per decade. By the end of this century, most people living in Canada and the USA will be mixed race, and which race you are will depend on how you perceive yourself. The most extreme example to date is US Senator Elizabeth Warren. Ms. Warren looks Caucasian, was brought up by two Caucasian parents, and a genetic test revealed that she was at least 98.44% Caucasian and up to 99.8%. Despite this, no less than Harvard University claimed that Ms. Warren was the first full female professor of colour at Harvard. So how does a person who is 99% of European origin claim to be a person of colour?   

This is not unique to Ms. Warren and is happening in Canada within government hiring, where identity has been used by most governments to screen and select candidates. This has led to many candidates self-assessing – in similar ways to Ms. Warren. And in government, there is no DNA test so it is all self-assessment, with no proof required or allowed.  

Going forward, Canada will need to make a decision. Do we want to continue with our historic belief that all Canadians are equal and that everyone should be treated the same? Do we want progress towards the view of Morgan Freeman and stop describing people by their race? Or do we want to adopt the Elizabeth Warren route – to highlight any and all racial differences in our society even if the difference amounts to only one percent? 

We may be at an inflection point, where we are looking to ensure that our society becomes less racist than ever before. This is true for both the USA and Canada. Do we achieve this by looking for more ways of accentuating racial divides, or do we work harder at treating everyone the same? It is a choice that the Prime Minister and federal NDP leader are forcing on our society and we need to decide which way to go.


Peter Holle is president of the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.