Achieving the principle of leaving no one behind implies that implementation should start with those furthest behind, and adequate monitoring must be in place to ensure the well-being of marginalized groups improves—and no new groups are harmed.

By Stefan Jungcurt

The 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) place a special emphasis on ensuring no one is left behind in implementation, meaning the SDGs must be realized for all people in all places. Achieving this principle implies that implementation should start with those furthest behind, and adequate monitoring must be in place to ensure the well-being of marginalized groups improves—and no new groups are harmed.

But who is being left behind in Canada? A prerequisite for action is clearly identifying those at risk of being left behind so their progress in achieving the SDGs can be monitored.

In 2019, with the support of the Canadian government, IISD investigated who is being left behind in the country. Our team looked at available data sources to identify who is being marginalized, how marginalization happens, and how government interventions may be helping. We looked at measurement challenges with respect to marginalization in Canada and surveyed emerging international practices on measuring—and ultimately addressing—the situation and needs of those being left behind.

Members of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit groups are not only more likely to be poor and to suffer from food insecurity in Canada, they also experience health inequalities that reduce their life expectancy.

The COVID-19 crisis has pushed many of these groups even further behind, often adding new pressures to existing factors of marginalization. In their study of household food insecurity, Tarasuk and Mitchell found that in 2017–2018, one in eight people living in Canada experienced food insecurity. Observers expect the pandemic shifted this number to one in seven Canadians.

Before the pandemic, recent immigrants were three times more likely than average Canadians to be poor. The situation was even worse for newcomers who are lone parents or older than 65 years. Recent immigrants were among the groups most at risk of contracting COVID-19 because they often worked in jobs where social distancing was challenging and because of inadequate living conditions.

COVID-19 has also severely impacted the health and economic well-being of people with disabilities. More people with permanent conditions reported losing their job during the pandemic and being affected by economic hardship than other Canadians. They also struggled to buy food, groceries, and masks. Even before the pandemic, people with disabilities were poorer and had lower levels of education than other Canadians.

Members of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit groups are not only more likely to be poor and to suffer from food insecurity in Canada, they also experience health inequalities that reduce their life expectancy. Data on the early stage of COVID-19 confirm these inequities. A survey from Manitoba showed in 2020 Indigenous Peoples, who represented 13% of Manitoba’s population, accounted for 17% of provincial COVID-19 infections. Data from Ontario showed that racialized groups had a 1.7-to-7.1-fold higher rate of COVID infection and a 1.7-to-9.1-fold higher rate of COVID-19 hospitalization compared to white Ontarians.

As these examples show, it is vital for countries to identify and measure the factors that marginalize people and push them behind. Marginalization puts people at disproportionate health, social, and economic risks when a disaster strikes—such as a pandemic or a major climate change impact.

Our research also shows that, while Canada is a data-rich country, official statistics often do not reflect the diverse factors that contribute to marginalization. We found three distinct measurement challenges to inclusive SDG monitoring in Canada.

First, it is difficult to capture all dimensions of marginalization appropriately in data. Some groups, such as homeless people or members of First Nations living on reserve, are difficult to include in large-scale surveys that use household addresses to identify respondents. Many of these groups remained invisible during the pandemic, and we lack essential information on how their well-being has been affected by COVID, social distancing, and the repeated lockdowns.

Second, data alone cannot adequately reflect differences in perceptions, values, and priorities that shape the needs of marginalized groups and the actions needed to improve their situation. Different marginalized groups may feel equally poor but for different reasons. If these reasons are not captured, response measures will likely miss their mark. Most attempts to measure COVID-19 impact focus on how the pandemic has affected people’s health and their economic situation. We know far less about how the loss of social contacts affects groups with different cultures and how the inability to gather has disrupted their lives.

Third, we learned that because of the need to reflect different perceptions, values, and priorities, ownership over data matters. To adequately communicate the situation of marginalized groups in a respectful and unbiased way, these groups must have control over the data used to describe them. This empowers communities to tell their own story of marginalization, which is important both for decision-makers designing interventions as well as for community members stimulating engagement. The OCAP principles (Ownership, Control, Access, and Possession) developed by the First Nations Information Governance Centre embody these findings and provide a starting point for the respectful use of data describing First Nations groups.

Based on the findings of our original study, we recommended developing a complementary, bottom-up measurement approach where local communities and organizations working with vulnerable groups participate in gathering, governing, and using data to measure the state of their well-being in the SDG context.

In the second phase of this work, we aim to lay the groundwork for such a participatory approach by reaching out to marginalized groups to learn what data they collect in their work, what data they need to support the groups they work with, and how data can be used in a respectful manner to describe the needs of marginalized groups.

The past 24 months have delivered powerful reminders of how important it is to collect and use the right data to understand the impacts of a global pandemic on people. At the same time, the demonstrations sparked by the violent murder of George Floyd are raising awareness of how systemic racism and institutionalized inequalities continue to hold back marginalized groups. And as we are writing these words, the ongoing horrific discoveries of the victims of Canada’s residential school system remind us that some causes of marginalization cannot be captured in data.

We recognize the societal discourse on marginalization is rapidly evolving and so is the language we use to frame the problem and its solutions. In our first report, we referred to specific groups as broadly “vulnerable.” Using the phrase “vulnerable groups” has been increasingly critiqued for, at best, being vague, and at worst, further reproducing stereotypes and inequalities. In their study of inclusion, Hayes and Carria find using the phrase “vulnerable groups” risks greater omission and exclusion of the people that projects like ours are intending to serve. Instead, researchers and practitioners recommend using the term “marginalized,” and to be specific about which groups one is referring to. We will continue to educate ourselves on evolving language to address structural inequality.

We cannot approach the need for more inclusive and respectful monitoring of the well-being of marginalized groups in Canada with the expectation for fast answers. Rather, we seek to learn how to ask the right questions.

About the Author

Stefan Jungcurt leads IISD’s work on indicators and data for SDG monitoring. He completed his Ph.D. on institutional interplay in global environmental governance at Humboldt University, Berlin