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Black History Month Reflections Part 2: Missing Data, Missing Action

February 28, 2024 - 9:21 am / News

This is the second part in a two-part series during Black History Month, read Floriane Ethier’s first part here. 

My name is Floriane and I’m a Data Advisor on the Built for Zero Canada team. My role is dedicated to helping others use data to drive improvement toward the goal of ending homelessness in Canada. 

I wasn’t drawn to working with data because of a passion for numbers themselves, but rather what it reveals about how we relate to one another: what we have in common, what struggles we share (or don’t), and then, what we can do about it. What I’ve discovered through the process, is that data is a tool that has allowed me to further my passion for addressing injustices.

Part of observing Black History Month means dedicating time to reflect on how systemic racism persists. 

When I think of the anti-Black racism that my family or I have experienced, I can’t help but think about the number of people who share this reality. The first step in addressing racism is exposing it.  

A story came out recently about a Black Haitian woman in Québec who was looking for an apartment. When she found the right one, she contacted the landlord only to be told that it was already off the market. What was strange was that she kept seeing the posting pop up as she continued her search. She decided to have her boyfriend, who happens to be white, check it out. He received a different response when he inquired about it – that the apartment was still available and that he should come to the next open house visit. 

I have heard so many similar stories from my friends and my family. Everyday racism may sound surprising or unbelievable for those who don’t live it, but, unfortunately, for people who experience it, it is quite ordinary. 


Missing Data 

One of the roles data can play here is by scaling those stories and showing just how often this happens. Having that reliable, disaggregated data is part of what we’re lacking in Canada.   

The Department of Housing and Urban Development in the United States has conducted large-scale studies on housing discrimination every 10 years since the late 1970s. They do so by using a “paired testing” methodology, where two volunteers with similar demographic characteristics, except racial identity for example, apply for the same rental unit. Then, they test for discrimination by monitoring how each gets treated. The first of these studies focused on racial identity, and more recent studies have included disability status, marital status, sexual orientation, and gender identity. 

The most recent report has shown an improvement over the years when it comes to anti-Black discrimination. However, white renters are still being told about and shown more available units, more likely to be offered a lower rent, and told that certain fees are negotiable. White renters are also less likely to be questioned on their credit scores.  

No such large-scale audit has been done here in Canada.  

No racism in Canada? 

Growing up and going to school in the southern United States we were taught that racism in Canada essentially did not exist. Rather, it was a welcoming haven at the end of the underground railroad. It’s too easy to ignore the history and current reality of anti-Black racism in Canada when compared to the racial tensions and white nationalist violence in the U.S.. Canada’s racism is more insidious but very much present. There are now greater efforts being made to reveal the impact of systemic racism here. 

The first Coordinated PiT (Point-in-Time) counts in Canada were in 2016. The most recent ones, done between 2020-2022, were the first to collect racialized data. There’s also the Homeless Individuals and Families Information System (HIFIS),  run by Infrastructure Canada, which has recently included racial identity questions in its new software updates. 

Both initiatives represent the first steps towards addressing our huge gap in knowledge concerning racial disparities when accessing services and housing. Having this data means being able to show the impact of systemic discrimination on BIPOC individuals. It also means knowing where we’re starting from and what we’re working towards. We can’t address a problem if we don’t see it and we can’t solve it if we don’t measure improvement. 

Case study: Royal Victoria 

The first time I truly saw the impact of actionable data was when I was working at the Old Brewery Mission in their research department.  

The Old Brewery Mission (OBM) did a post-mortem evaluation of a temporary homeless shelter that opened in Montreal’s old Royal Victoria Hospital in the winter of 2018-2019. It was a part of the city’s winter response that year. As a pilot project, it offered low-barrier services, for example, it allowed pets, allowed some use of alcohol, and had dedicated spaces that allowed for couples. The most common narrative around the need for temporary winter shelters is that other homelessness resources reach their capacity due to harsh weather. This was the same idea behind opening extra space at the old Royal Victoria Hospital. 

Hannah Brais, OBM’s research coordinator, led the program evaluation on the Royal Victoria pilot project and I got to participate in the quantitative data collection and analysis. The results showed that there was no change in users accessing the shelter based on weather – no increases during exceptionally cold nights and no decreases during warmer weather. Instead, users said they were coming to the temporary shelter because it offered lower barrier services than any other option in the city. Especially, when it comes to alcohol and substance use. 

Service providers, local advocates, and health authorities had been advocating to have a wet shelter program for years. The Royal Victoria evaluation exposed that need in real-time for Montreal. When the evaluation of the project was presented, the City of Montreal finally accepted to allow for the city’s first wet shelter programs. 

That’s how actionable data works. Through analysis and research, you find what is really at the core of a problem to provide informed solutions.

I wasn’t drawn to working with data because of a passion for numbers themselves, but numbers have allowed me to further my passion for identifying injustices and correcting them. Having race-based data on homelessness will be a game-changer in Canada and we will be able to demonstrate the impact of anti-Black racism on housing barriers and advocate for specific and evidence-based solutions that help tackle systemic racism. 


These structural inequities exist year-round. The work towards undoing them requires us to be constant and deliberate. 
Continue to learn about the pervasive effects of systemic racism: 
Read more on equitable tools and practices for the homelessness sector: 
Get inspired by what other communities are doing to address anti-black racism in their programs: