Census issue sparks uproar in Canada

If information is power, and privacy is precious, what happens when those values collide?

Yesterday, the head of Statistics Canada, Munir Sheikh, resigned in an unusual protest over an earlier announcement by the Harper government that the mandatory long form of Canada’s census will be replaced by a voluntary version for the 2011 count.

The first census in Canada took place in 1666, so the exercise is nothing new. The many changes across different centuries can be found here.

Presently, Canada conducts a census every 5 years – the last was in 2006, the next comes in 2011. In 2006, most households got the less-controversial short form. 20% got something called the long form, which (you guessed it) is longer. Long and short forms must be completed and returned under threat of fines or imprisonment (up to $500 and 3 months in jail).

Limited, but impassioned, resistance to filing the census has spanned the political spectrum. For example, left-wing concerns about the 2006 census included objections to a sub-contract with Lockheed Martin, with fear that Canadian data might be accessed by an increasingly-paranoid U.S. (Statistics Canada is adamant that data was not shared and such fears were groundless.)

Prosecution for non-compliance has been selective and very few have been taken to trial.

Canada’s long form has included questions about what time you leave for work, how many bathrooms are in your house, who does the childcare and housework and asks if you are willing to allow Statistics Canada access to your federal tax return to simplify the collation of financial data. (A “no” or a blank mean Stats Canada will not get that access.)

Privacy concerns are addressed by Statistic Canada on this page of their web site.

Industry Minister Tony Clement has been defending the change to make the long form voluntary on the principle that Candians are entitled to their privacy and ought not be compelled to reply under government duress. Clement proposes replacing the long form with a voluntary household survey along with greater distribution to compensate for a likely lower response rate.

Here is a summary of the issue from the Law is Cool blog (a log school blog and pod cast from Canada), which includes PDF links to the long & short form questions:

The Canadian government runs a census of the population every fives years on the authority of the federal Statistics Act (s. 19(1)). Under this statute, it is the job specifically of Statistics Canada to “take the census of population of Canada” (s. 3(c)). The Statistics Act gives the federal cabinet the power and discretion to appoint and remove the Chief Statistician of Canada (s. 4(1)). He and his office are not independent. The Chief Statistician must carry out his duties “under the direction” of the designated minister, which is currently Minister of Industry Tony Clement. Section 7 of the Act empowers the minister to set “rules, instructions, schedules and forms” for Statistics Canada, including for taking a census. Section 21(1) requires the federal cabinet to prescribe census questions by order in council. That is exactly what the cabinet did on June 17 causing the Statistical Society of Canada to criticize the scrapping of the long form.

Minister Clement may have the legal right to direct the contents of the census, but it turns out that figures command a very loud and highly-engaged constituency. An already-hot political firefight is flaring even higher.

Media, academia, businesses, minority and language interest groups – and government agencies on every level – live and breathe this stuff. And, by and large, they are quite displeased.

Criticism runs along these lines: information is good, which means more information is even better. Voluntary data is basically useless. Without data to drive informed planning and marketing, groups as diverse as private enterprise, civic planers and social programs will have to operate blind. Some are insisting Canada’s standing as a nation of reason and social progress in general will be endangered by what they view as a politically-motivated stunt.

Obviously, the rights & privacy crowd feels just the opposite. Information may be used for good or ill, but compelling the collection of information that feels intrusive is an inappropriate use of government power. (Equally obviously, the definition of intrusive is highly subjective.)

The most recent polling data on this issue indicated a near-split of public opinion: 51% called the conservative proposal to drop the long form “bad”. But almost as many, 49%, thought the idea was “good”.

Despite the legal requirement to comply, it’s clear not everyone wants to tell all. Some 21,000 Canadians listed ‘Jedi knight’ as their religion in 2001 and a satirical site dedicated to protecting the rights of Canadian Jedi can be found here. (Or perhaps there ARE that many Jedi in Canada and their diverse needs are clearly being ignored by an indifferent, convention-bound government?)

The average Canadian likely doesn’t get up in the morning worrying about the validity of statistical data, or the national census. But for those with a stake in the topic, feelings are running very run high, with little interest in agreeing to disagree.

Statistics have seldom loomed so large in public consciousness.  In this case, they are yet another example of frustration that the Harper government favors ideology over information.

Or, one could hew to Clement’s position: it’s fundamentally wrong for government to favor data over freedom.

This one is far from over.


2 Comments on “Census issue sparks uproar in Canada”

  1. D. Rogers says:

    The original concept of a national census was to conduct a simple head count.

    But over the years, in Canada at least, it has become more and more invasive, laced with personal questions about where you live, with whom you live, your religion, your ethnicity, how many rooms in your house, etc etc. About the only question missing is bra size.

    So we welcome the announcement that this invasive “long form census”, which was sent to 1 household in 5, is being made voluntary.

    Even the still-mandatory short form asks for more info than is really necessary for a head count. It should not ask for names, but simply ask how many people live at an address, their gender, and their ages (not date-of-birth).

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  2. Hard data obtained from the anonymous census long-form clearly helps in setting public policy and planning. This hard data provides the public with vital information that helps them make the case for many government-financed initiatives. Do some initiatives go against the Harper conservatives vision of what the public should be entitled to? In the absence of hard census data, the conservatives can remove well-supported arguments and implement their view of what public policy and planning should be. No wonder they have dug in their heals on this issue, and keep spouting off their silly talking points that the government will put you in jail if you fail to fill-in the anonymous census long-form.

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