Montreal community groups press, once again, for race-based data on COVID-19

Nearly a year after the pandemic descended on Canada, community groups in Montreal are still pressing all levels of government to collect and publicize data on how COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting racialized minorities and low-income residents in the city.

Info would help policy makers come up with ways to target vulnerable communities, advocates say

Advocates in Montreal want public health to gather race-based data about COVID-19. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Nearly a year after the pandemic descended on Canada, community groups in Montreal are still pressing all levels of government to collect and publicize data on how COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting racialized minorities and low-income residents in the city.

"Montreal as a city needs this information so that we can work together to send resources where they are most needed," said Dr. Jill Hanley, a social work professor at McGill University, who conducted her own study last year on the impact of COVID-19 on ethnocultural communities in Montreal. It found that multiethnic, low-income neighbourhoods were particularly vulnerable.

At a virtual news conference Tuesday, Hanley said that while researchers have been able to gather some information themselves, public health officials would be able to go deeper and allow policy makers to take more targeted steps at addressing the problem.

Marvin Rotrand, an independent councillor at Montreal city hall, brought forward a motion to urge authorities "to collect and report disaggregated data including race, income, disability and other social determinants of health that will inform evidence-based health-care and social program interventions."

Rotrand said that provinces such as Manitoba, which has gathered race-based data, has used it to determine how to help marginalized communities.

Geneviève Jutras, a spokesperson for Mayor Valerie Plante, said in an email the mayor's office agrees "with the principles" of the motion, which is scheduled to be debated Feb. 22.

"We already have discussions with public health on this matter," she said.

When asked about the issue of collecting race-based data, Quebec public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda said that he doesn't think that's the most relevant social factor to look at.

"We use that for some diseases when there is a racial effect of the disease because of the genetics. But most of the time, it's not the race that is the problem, it's the conditions of the person: poverty, crowding in houses. And I think it's those elements which are more important for me: revenue, how many kids, university level. For me those are the factors that can explain why those communities are more [affected]."

Walter Chi Yan Tom, a lawyer and human rights activist, said that, at this stage in the pandemic, public health should already have gathered such information, and made it public.

He cited the example of the suspected high rate of infection among members of the Filipino community in the densely populated neighbourhood of Côte-des-Neiges.

"We can speculate, but we need hard data for the authorities to properly deal with it," he said.

Data could inform vaccination decisions

Fo Niemi, the executive director of the Center For Research-Action on Race Relations, who was also at the news conference, said the information would helpful in dealing with the next challenge: vaccinations.

He pointed out that Canada's national advisory committee on immunization issued new guidance earlier this week, recommending that adults from racialized communities disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic be prioritized for shots in the second stage of the vaccination campaign.

An analysis conducted last June by CBC News found Montreal's most racially diverse neighbourhoods were hardest hit by the pandemic.

Of the 24 socio-economic factors tested by CBC News, the strongest correlation was between cases per 100,000 residents and the percentage of Black residents.

Sharon Nelson, vice-president of the Jamaica Association of Montreal, said it's not too late to commit to finding out exactly why.

"Not only for today with COVID, but as we move forward," she said. 

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.



Benjamin Shingler is a reporter with CBC's investigative unit in Montreal. He previously worked at The Canadian Press, Al Jazeera America and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. Email story ideas to

With files from Verity Stevenson


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