Politics - Federal

The Furor Over the Census

By Lorne Warwick
Published July 28, 2010

I will be the first to admit that higher mathematics, including statistical analysis, is not my forte. However, the almost universal condemnation the Harper Government has received for its decision to scrap compulsory completion of the long census form by 20% of the population has convinced me of the vital role it plays in, among other things, social and economic planning, both of which are essential to Canada's well-being.

The matter is of such import that the head of Statistics Canada, Chief Statistician Munir Sheikh, in a lamentably rare demonstration of public integrity, has resigned over the issue. Indeed, the entire census debacle has led me to consider a number of things, not the least of which are a citizen's responsibilities within a democracy.

In an obvious nod to the Conservatives' reactionary power base, Industry Minister Tony Clement claims justification for ending compulsory completion of the long census form by asserting it is too intrusive upon people's privacy, yet another instance of government interference in citizens' lives.

In fact, he claims that both Statistics Canada and the Government has fielded many complaints from people about this intrusion. Ironically, statistics do not support his claim, as both the Government and Statistics Canada have received only about three complaints each.

Nonetheless, even if it had received a large volume of complaints, would the Government have been justified in eliminating it? It is this question that got me pondering both the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

The majority of us, I assume, are aware of our rights under The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (especially in light of the fact that several of them were willfully violated by both the Government and the police during the recent G20 in Toronto).

However, how often do we consider the obligations citizenship entails, along with the fact that we generally discharge those obligations faithfully, whether we like them or not?

Take, for example, jury duty. I have never known anyone who goes to the mailbox hoping to receive a summons for duty along with its potential to disrupt the normal flow of daily life, sometimes even for months at a time, with little or no financial compensation. Yet in spite of its intrusiveness, we accept it as one of our responsibilities under the law, one that helps to ensure a fair trial for the accused.

Similarly, despite a seemingly almost universal belief that taxes are too high, most of us, again in recognition of their importance in maintaining a society reflective of our values, pay them instead of attempting to defraud the government.

As well, whether they be municipal bylaws requiring us to clean up after our dogs or maintain our property to certain standards, traffic laws that forbid the running of red lights, provincial or federal laws prescribing penalties for criminal acts against property and people, the vast majority of us obey and support these intrusions, in no small measure because, once again, we appreciate their vital role in civil society, where the inclinations of the few do not trump the needs and values of the many.

So to live in society, by definition, puts limits on personal freedoms that entail a certain measure of government intrusion into our lives. However, by pandering to a minority of the population's worst instincts, the Harper Government is undermining values that Canadians hold dear, once again demonstrating its contempt for true democracy and the people it was elected to serve, yet two more reasons we should question whether or not the Conservative Party deserves to continue to govern.

Lorne Warwick is a retired high school teacher who spends his time reading, traveling, doing crosswords, volunteering, and becoming increasingly concerned about the state of democracy in Canada.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted July 28, 2010 at 14:58:28

I certainly don't consider myself part of the "reactionary conservative base" that everyone keeps talking about, but I can come up with a number of non-insidious reasons for no longer making this part of the census compulsory ...

  • most countries get along without such a thing
  • political, media and consumer polsters manage to come up with polls (valuable enough for people to pay for) despite having no powers of imprisonment for non-compliance
  • the government maks oodles of money selling this data - which makes motives for keeping it at least slightly suspect
  • the government does more and more "for our own good"; a step away from creeping nannystatism - even backwards - is refreshing and good for everyone now and again
  • there's something about the apologias which feel uncomfortably close to "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" to me
  • there's something just wrong about not being allowed to say "no" when the government just wants to know more about you for no immediate reason (vs. wanting to know your income for taxation purposes, or your address in order to issue a driver's license) - it's a bit of an affront to the course of our political history, which has been in the direction of increasing respect for individual dignity and respect

I've not made up my mind about the issue, and I certainly believe that the data is useful and valuable, but I certainly disagree with those who think that this can only be about "pleasing the [evil, right-wing, Bush-loving, abortion-banning, gun-toting] base."

Comment edited by moylek on 2010-07-28 14:06:20

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By jasonaallen (registered) - website | Posted July 28, 2010 at 15:33:15

Ok, so here's a compromise: We make the census entirely voluntary, but make Voting mandatory, with non-compliance punishable by fines or jail time. Hell, the Aussies do it - and if we are already on the "Other (progressive, stable democratic) countries are/n't doing it, why can't we?" train, then let's see how far that train goes!

As far as the reasons for gutting the census, I found this Op-Ed piece by a notable Conservative-watcher particularly instructive: http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2010...

Comment edited by jasonaallen on 2010-07-28 14:35:30

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted July 28, 2010 at 16:25:45

To me this is essentially a non issue served up by the Cons and fueled by the Libs to keep political debate away from anything that really matters: jobs, economy, ballooning deficits, war... unimportant! Let's debate the census!!!

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted July 28, 2010 at 20:33:08

•most countries get along without such a thing
- If you see the wikipedia article on "census" you'll find that most modern countries have a census in some form or another, although some are just population based, others, especially in developed countries, contain more substantial information.
•political, media and consumer polsters manage to come up with polls (valuable enough for people to pay for) despite having no powers of imprisonment for non-compliance
- Yes, but when you ask people for opinions rather than facts you generally have no shortage of people willing to speak. The census is about facts, which people volunteer much less readily, especially if they actually have to think or research the answers, like figuring out how much they contributed to their RRSP last year.
•the government maks oodles of money selling this data - which makes motives for keeping it at least slightly suspect
- No suspect movtives at all. If anything as a net income generator they should keep the census as a way to fight the budget defecit, no?
•the government does more and more "for our own good"; a step away from creeping nannystatism - even backwards - is refreshing and good for everyone now and again
- I don't see how eliminating the mandatory census does that. The census is about improving the information the government has to work with when making important policy and funding decisions. Removing that information does nothing but give governments less information when trying to make important decisions.
•there's something about the apologias which feel uncomfortably close to "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" to me
- I'm not quite sure what you mean, but statistical data they are obtaining is pretty much useless as far as tracking individuals and privacy concerns.
•there's something just wrong about not being allowed to say "no" when the government just wants to know more about you for no immediate reason (vs. wanting to know your income for taxation purposes, or your address in order to issue a driver's license) - it's a bit of an affront to the course of our political history, which has been in the direction of increasing respect for individual dignity and respect
- I'm concerned by your use of the phrase "immediate reason". Isn't targeting the delivery of healthcare and social services an "immediate enough reason"? The information statscan obtains is used, not "immediately" if by immediately you mean by the end of the year. But why should the immediacy of the use matter? If they have a reason for measuring this information, and they can put this information to good use, why it be any different than the information you give the Canada Revenue Agency, the Ministry of Transportation, or the employment insurance office?

People still think statscan and these numbers are irrelevant. Sure the average Canadian doesn't use statistics, but that doesn't mean they're not important. Numerous groups, including provincial governments are saying we need this information, and we need it to be accurate. Why are we still having this debate?

As an aside, I also think that like the gender neutral national anthem and political party funding, this was a non-issue that the government decided to bring up for whatever reason. I don't recall hearing people complaining and articles written about how intrusive the census is. So why manufacture a crisis where there is none? If it ain't broke...don't touch it!

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted July 28, 2010 at 20:40:49

Hi Ken, how are you? I'd like to respectfully address a couple of your points

but I certainly disagree with those who think that this can only be about "pleasing the [evil, right-wing, Bush-loving, abortion-banning, gun-toting] base."

Of course not- this issue transcends the political spectrum. Here's a sample list of organizations against scrapping the mandatory long form census, spanning the political spectrum. I'm not necessarily left-wing in my own politics, but I feel quite strongly about the census. As long as privacy is respected (and the punishments are serious for any census taker who reveals personal information), then personal dignity is respected.

political, media and consumer polsters manage to come up with polls

It is dangerous to democracy to leave the gathering of information that can be used to fight for the just allocation of resources or for effective legislation to those who can afford to pay for the gathering. This is from the Globe:

Of course, it’s not just government and business that could gain from the data created by the census. Ordinary Canadians use it too. In theory, the census creates a level playing field in public-policy debates. Were the Statistics Canada website user-friendly and its data accessible (data, may I remind you, we've already paid for) then citizens could use it to fight ineffective legislation, unjust policies or wasteful practices. If that data is no longer collected by the state, those who are able to pay for their own surveys – read large companies – will have an advantage not only over citizens but also governments. With the decision to scrap the long census form, the ability of ordinary citizens to defend themselves against government and businesses took a heavy hit.

Comment edited by Michelle Martin on 2010-07-28 19:46:47

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By renegauthier (registered) - website | Posted July 29, 2010 at 09:53:01

Here's the real problem kids. If there are no objective statistics, there's nothing to prevent the feds from making their own up.

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