Vol. 21 No. 2 | ISSN: 0834-1729


by Michael Ornstein

For detailed analysis of the demographic and socio-economic characteristics of Canadians, the quinquennial Canadian Censuses are an unparalleled resource. My report on “Ethno-Racial Groups in Toronto, 1971-2001: A Demographic and Socio-Economic Profile” describes more than 100 ethno-racial groups in the Toronto “Census Metropolitan Area” (or CMA), identifying groups from the Census question about the “ethnic or cultural group(s)” of each person’s ancestors. Because the form provides room for up to four answers to this question, classifying the many, many combinations of answers is complex, but it provides much more detail than the commonly-employed classification into “visible minority” groups. While, for example, research from the Census constitutes “Black” Canadians as a single visible minority group, the Report provides information on nine different African ethno-racial groups and eleven Caribbean groups. Examples of the groups described in the Report are the Afghan, Ecuadorian, French, German, Grenadian, Lithuanian, Nigerian, Palestinian, Tamil and Vietnamese groups.

The Report describes many characteristics of each group, including the distributions of age and family types, education, labour force characteristics, poverty and family income. Though focusing on the most recent 2001 Census, for some ethno-racial groups information is available for six Censuses conducted between 1971 and 2001. The complete Report, which includes a detailed description of how the ethno-racial groups are identified and how the groups’ demographic and socio-economic characteristics are measured, is available here at no charge.

This research provides a basis for identifying ethno-racial groups with multiple disadvantage. For thirteen different socio-economic measures, the accompanying Table identifies ethno-racial groups that are “extremely”, “severely” and “significantly” disadvantaged. The category for “extreme” disadvantage includes “outliers”, whose characteristics place them outside the overall, relatively continuous distributions of socio-economic characteristics. For example, consider the incidence of poverty, as measured by Statistics Canada’s “low income cut-off” (the “LICO”). For all ethno-racial groups the median percentage below the LICO is 15.7 percent, and the 75th percentile of the distribution is 25.1 percent. The distribution is quite smooth out to about the 95th percentile, for which the rate is 36.5 percent. But then, six ethno-racial groups experience extra-ordinary economic disadvantage: 72.3 percent of members of the Somali group are below the LICO, as are 60.4 percent of Afghans, 57.3 percent of Ethiopians, 53.9 percent of Bangladeshis, 45.3 percent of “Other West Asians” and 41.0 percent of Taiwanese.

For each dimension reported in the Table, roughly, the category for “severe” disadvantage includes groups in the lowest decile, except for “outliers” already classified in the “extremely disadvantaged” category. “Significantly disadvantaged” groups are in the lowest fifth (or “quintile”) of the distribution, but above the lowest tenth (technically, the second lowest decile). For the LICO measure, “severely disadvantaged groups” have 34 to 40 percent of their members below the low income cut-off, and “significantly disadvantaged” groups have 29.5 to 33.9 percent of their members below the cut-off. With just 112 groups, rather than delineating these categories in terms of exact percentiles, as far as possible the category boundaries are defined by natural breaks in the distribution and so that they are bounded by “round numbers.”

So, the Table identifies ethno-racial groups in the three categories of disadvantage according to 13 different criteria, including the proportion of children in female one-parent families, education, unemployment (for women and men separately), types of jobs, employment income, low-income and the median income of census family members. While the particular choice of indicators of inequality affects the results, there is a strong tendency for the various measures to be correlated so that alternative measures would produce similar results.

Counting the number of times each ethno-racial group appears in the Table immediately demonstrates the extent to which socio-economic disadvantage disproportionately affects particular groups. Of the 112 groups, 52 do not appear in the Table at all, as they do not experience disadvantage in any area. A further 12 groups appear only once in the Table and 11 groups appear twice. Among the 48 European groups, only the Bosnian and Portuguese groups appear more than once.

Four ethno-racial groups experience far greater disadvantage than any other group. The Somali group appears in all the 13 rows of the Table, nine times in the “extremely disadvantaged” category. The Ethiopian group appears 12 times and the Afghan and Bangladeshi groups appear nine times, and these three groups are “extremely disadvantaged” in six categories or more.

A number of other ethno-racial groups experience multiple disadvantage, but not so severely as those four groups. These include the Albanian, Black, Eritrean, Ghanaian, Grenadian, Iraqi, Salvadoran, Sri Lankan, Tamil and Vietnamese groups, as well as the “Other Southeast Asian” and “Other West Asian” groups. The latter two categories are composite groups that include a number of ethno-racial groups with too few members to allow separate analysis; the former includes mainly Cambodian and Laotians, and the latter includes Tajiks, Uzbeks and a number of other groups.

Severe socio-economic disadvantage in Toronto is almost entirely the experience of non-European ethno-racial groups with high proportions of immigrants, and especially from refugee–producing nations in which many of the displaced persons were from outside large cities. One exceptional European group, the Albanians, includes many refugees and immigrants from one of the poorest countries in Europe, while the presence of the Portuguese group reflects their unusually low level of education. Especially troubling is the inclusion of the “Black” group among the most disadvantaged, because it includes a high proportion of persons who are born in Canada, which is why their identification is not with an individual African or Caribbean nation (for this analysis, Census respondents who described themselves as African and/or Black and as a national, such as Nigerian or Barbadian, are classified in terms of that nationality).

Beyond groups experiencing the most severe disadvantage, the Table suggests the development of significant long-term disadvantage for ethno-racial groups with relatively low recent immigration. The concern is that the positions of some groups from Africa, the Caribbean, and South and Central America will develop some permanency that will be perpetuated by the class mechanisms that transmit inequality between generations via differential access to wider, more privileged experiences in childhood, superior education, class-related social and cultural skills, and so on.

It is common to think of inequality in terms of immigration, and to assume that time will erase these differences as it did, mostly, for Europeans. Whether defined in terms of more or less extreme circumstances, however, since the 1970s disadvantage has become highly racialized and there is no social law to guarantee that this inequality will disappear over time.

These results are highly consistent with summary findings in the Report which shows that 10 percent of the members of European ethno-racial groups have incomes below the low income cut-off, compared to about 20 percent for Aboriginal, South Asian, East Asian, Caribbean and South and Central American groups, 30 percent for Arab and West Asian groups, and 40 percent for African ethno-racial groups. More troubling, there is strong evidence that the socio-economic differences between individual ethno-racial groups and also between the larger regional groups increased substantially after 1991, as measured in the 1996 and 2001 Censuses. Thus, results from the just concluded 2006 Census, available around 2008, may provide important evidence of the permanence of a new, more racially unequal society.

Michael Ornstein is Director of the Institute for Social Research.

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