Anti-racism is an area of noticeably increasing focus in Canadian policy communities, but less clear is what can be done to advance accountability in anti-racism policymaking. Much of the public narrative from governments on anti-racism and racial equity focuses on what takes place outside of government, yet this dismisses the reality that some policy traditions, conventions and common practices still perpetuate institutional racism in policymaking processes. Minimizing or disregarding an issue that we know impacts policy outcomes has undoubtedly contributed to issues of trust, capacity and legitimacy around Canada’s anti-racism policy approach.

The federal government can demonstrate its commitment to eradicating institutional racism by implementing two anti-racism accountability measures. It should create a commission to investigate institutional racism in federal policy systems. It should also appoint an anti-racism accountability officer, formalized through legislation and empowered through requirements for the government to respond to its recommendations.

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Moving toward effective anti-racist policy analysis

Institutional racism is pervasive in many parts of Canadian society. In organizational settings, racial discrimination can manifest as the consistent underrepresentation of groups that are racialized, particularly in leadership positions. This was highlighted in the 2022 report of the minister of national defence’s advisory panel on systemic racism and discrimination.

A University of British Columbia report noted in January that institutional racism in organizations also manifests as the dismissal of concerns about systemic racism, along with insufficient resources dedicated to advancing equity and inadequate handling of complaints from people who are racialized.

In government policymaking systems, racial discrimination often appears as the consistent marginalization or exclusion of the priorities of groups that are racialized, despite widespread knowledge of the ongoing impacts of institutional racism. For example, institutional racism is a significant barrier to accessing health care for racialized communities, particularly as it relates to services that are not included in Canada’s publicly funded system. Yet, there is an absence of a strategic, co-ordinated approach to advancing racial health equity in Canada.

Racial equity is also not adequately addressed in some of the federal government’s leading policy priorities in the 2022 federal budget, such as housing, climate action and child care. Additionally, meaningful policy discussion and strategic, co-ordinated resource allocation specifically in support of Black Canadian well-being is not a part of Budget 2022. That exclusion points to the continued impact of racialization and its role in routinely marginalizing Black communities’ priorities in the Canadian policy agenda.

Accountability measures

Greater accountability is needed to anchor Canada’s approach to anti-racism policymaking and ensure that initiatives uphold our collective commitments to racial equity. This accountability has practical implications for Canadians.

Community organizations and groups spend significant resources on resisting the effects of institutional racism, and speaking to its impact in public policy systems. Racialized and Indigenous communities in particular carry out a great deal of this work, which takes away from the ability to serve the immediate and often pressing needs of community members.

A major consequence of continually trying to hold governments accountable for institutional racism in policy systems is the enormous emotional and material cost placed on people who engage in this work.

Anti-racism policy accountability can also support governments in using public resources in more efficient ways. Institutional racism is a commonly omitted consideration in policy analysis, which leaves Canadian policy initiatives vulnerable to ineffectiveness, failure and potential misspending.

As a key consideration that is often excluded in Canadian policy analysis, institutional racism can affect a policy professional’s assessment of the historical and current socioeconomic context of a policy initiative, the interests or priorities of stakeholders involved, the best policy options available, and which policy options are recommended for action.

Ignoring this reality leaves open the possibility of continuing to allocate public funds to policy processes and initiatives that are not adequately designed for the society that we live in, which arguably contributes to inequitable and undesirable outcomes. When viewed in this way, it becomes clear that more serious analysis of institutional racism and the establishment of formal mechanisms that actively hold governments accountable for racial equity are required immediately.

Greater anti-racism accountability

Creating a commission on the elimination of racial discrimination and an independent anti-racism accountability officer could help to elevate Canada’s approach to racially equitable policymaking. This two-part accountability approach would honour the importance of open discussion and information-gathering on institutional racism in federal policy systems, while ensuring that institutional space is created for formalized, evidence-informed, strategic anti-racism policy action.

The federal government’s acceptance of this expanded and more committed role in anti-racism policymaking could support impactful policy learning and diffusion across provincial, territorial and municipal jurisdictions. This would also be another way for the federal government to demonstrate its commitment to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which it signed in 1966.

A commission focused on illuminating the roots of institutional racism and clearly identifying how racial discrimination is perpetuated by federal policy systems now is critical for the government-wide transformation needed to eliminate racial discrimination in policymaking. This commission would provide a critical evidence base for racially equitable policymaking and would provide practical support for the design of future policy initiatives that are responsive, inclusive and more reflective of the realities of our socioeconomic context.

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Racism and the need for a national integration commission

Importantly, the commission would create a key opportunity for Canadians of all backgrounds to engage in a national discussion on institutional racism and support a shared understanding about what anti-racist policy means for us.

To support greater inclusion of anti-racism principles and action throughout federal policy processes, an anti-racism accountability officer’s main functions should include the following:

  • Conducting research on anti-racism public policy and related matters;
  • Supporting strategic anti-racism policy development;
  • Regularly evaluating the federal government’s anti-racism policy progress;
  • Providing impartial anti-racism policy guidance to federal institutions; and
  • Supporting intergovernmental and public anti-racism policy engagement.

This parliamentary officer should also support federal institutions in the mandatory implementation of anti-racism policy analysis across government. This is a key step in strengthening federal anti-racism policy capacity. Ultimately, the anti-racism policy accountability officer should support federal institutions in eliminating racial discrimination in policy outputs.

A pathway to building trust

This is a part of imagining a renewed accountability framework for Canada’s anti-racism policy approach. In a future where Canada has a federal anti-racism accountability officer, and the final report of a federal commission, policy initiatives could be developed by a federal public service that has access to key information, data and anti-racism policy advice, supporting the government in demonstrating a greater commitment to racial equity and the elimination of racial discrimination.

Renewed anti-racism accountability will help to build federal policy capacity, while also showing Canadians that the government is ready to legitimately position itself as a leader in advancing racial equity. This step forward can help build the trust of people across communities, particularly communities that are racialized, helping us to see more clearly how we can collectively create a more inclusive Canada.

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Kimberly Nesbeth
Kimberly Nesbeth is a policy analyst and founder of Elevate Policy, a social-purpose consulting platform that connects people with policy processes. Twitter @kim_policy. Instagram @elevate.policy

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