Data provides the basis for more informed policies and practices:

School boards across Ontario should collect comprehensive data on their students’ race, ethnicity, religion and gender identity, a new report by York University urges.

This demographic data could help educators make learning more inclusive, from tackling systemic racism to designing lessons relevant to all students’ experiences, says the report, commissioned by the Ontario Ministry of Education.

“If you want to be able to work with particular groups of students, you should know who they are, otherwise you might be putting (resources) where they’re not addressing the issues directly, and that doesn’t help,” said Carl James, a York University education professor and co-author of the report.

The Toronto District School Boards collects information on student backgrounds through a census produced every five years.

Data collected in those surveys has helped show that Black students are twice as likely to be suspended from school and twice as likely to be enrolled in “non-academic” courses compared with other students.

The Peel District School Board has said it plans to collect race-based data through its own student census, expected to launch in 2018.

The York report’s call for improved data collection falls in line with the province’s three-year plan to battle systemic racism, unveiled in March.

Legislation expected to be tabled as part of this plan would make race-based data collection mandatory in Ontario’s education, child welfare, health and justice systems.

School boards across the province can improve upon the data they already have by requesting demographic information on students’ registration forms, James said.

“Right now, the long-form census does collect race data, so it’s not something that’s beyond what we collect in Canada,” he added.

The York report called for school boards to improve their demographic data collection no later than 2018-2019.

The tracking of racial, religious or ethnic information has garnered criticism in the past, from people concerned it can be used to profile or single out a particular race, particularly if the information is collected by police.

But race-based data can be an extremely positive step, as long as it is collected and used responsibly, said Anthony Morgan, a lawyer who specializes in issues of racial justice.

“(Data) has immense potential to be positive, but it has immense potential to be negative depending on who has access to the information, how it’s reported, who it’s reported to and what’s done to manipulate it — and that should be a valid concern,” Morgan said. “If the proper infrastructure is set up for the data to be collected that is fair, that is transparent . . . that is supported with parental involvement, I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

James acknowledged that the topic of race-based data could cause discomfort in some people. But race and other elements of a person’s background are an important part of who they are, he said.

“There’s a sense that we don’t see race, but, at the same time, we do see race,” James added. “Sometimes people think to see race is to be racist (but) to see race is . . . just to understand that it’s part of the person.”