Social Identification of Race in Canada Policy Brief

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Sansone, G., Fallon, B., Vandermorris, A., Adnan, A., & Crowe, A. (2023). Social Identification of Race in Canada: Policy Brief. Toronto, Ontario: Policy Bench, Fraser Mustard Institute of Human Development, University of Toronto

Sansone, G., Fallon, B., Vandermorris, A., Adnan, A., Crowe, A. 

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Issue: How do the ways in which individuals are categorized or assigned to racial/ethnic identities in different contexts – by others and by themselves – affect their lived experience, and what are the implications for the collection and use of data on race and identity by public service providers?

Background: Canada is currently lagging in the collection of population-based, disaggregated, and high-quality race and identity-based data, including Indigenous identity. There is a need for better inclusion of data on race and ethnicity to enhance our understanding of equity and diversity issues; however, there are concerns about appropriate procedures for collecting this information. For example, child welfare workers are often asked to populate these fields based on their own observation or perception of people’s identities, including their race and Indigenous status – a practice known as social identification or participant observer identification (POI). While this method may increase the amount of data available, there are associated costs, including a lack of standardization and the potential for bias. There are also valid concerns about accountability, governance, ethics, and protections against the misuse of data – particularly for data relevant to First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples in Canada. Given the importance of identity-based data as well as the current lack of standardization in data collection procedures in Ontario and across the country, there is a need for more evidence-informed strategies for the collection of racial identity data by service providers which can be used to improve policies and services in ways that promote equity.

Methods: A scan of the literature was conducted to identify and synthesize information relevant to the issue of identity-based data collection. The objectives were to: a) examine the literature on the practice and accuracy of social identification of race and identity and its associated outcomes; b) provide an overview of existing practices and policies across fields and jurisdictions; and c) discuss implications for research, policy and practice.

Results: Overall, the findings demonstrate that any research conclusions about racial disparities will be affected by which measure of race is used and how the data were collected. Both self-identification and social identification have been shown to be associated with outcomes relevant to health and social services across studies; however, studies are not always consistent with respect to which measure has a stronger association with disparities in outcomes. While there is growing support for enhanced collection of race and identity-based data, there is still no single agreed upon method or “gold standard” for the process of collecting this data. While most strategies have moved towards self-identification as the ideal practice, the available literature on social identification of race suggests that relying on only one measure can lead to data inaccuracies, as a single measure may not adequately represent the multidimensionality of race. Research from other countries also shows that observer identification often doesn’t match individuals’ self-identities, resulting in inconsistencies between different measures or dimensions of race for the same individuals – and this is more likely among certain groups, including those who identify as multi-racial or Indigenous.

Based on this evidence, researchers have suggested using multiples measures which may all contribute to different experiences of race to better capture different dimensions of racial identity.

Implications: A better understanding of the process of social identification of race and how it differs from self-identification would help inform strategies for the measurement and collection of race-based data – including who should collect such data and how it should be collected. This issue is especially important given the increasing racial and ethnic heterogeneity in Canada and the growth in multiracial identities. In particular, the rapid growth in Indigenous populations means that Indigenous peoples may be especially at risk of the negative social, psychological and health consequences of identity mismatch. However, in order to collect this information effectively, tools must first be developed to accurately measure each separate dimension of racial identity and to help ensure that the most appropriate measures are used. The collection of Indigenous identity requires additional considerations to ensure the use of culturally appropriate, informed and relevant data collection strategies and practices.

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