Tuesday, August 17, 2010

On Canada's ridiculous census conflict

Statistics Canada is heir to a long tradition, established under the French regime and continued under the British and independence, of government-conducted censuses. Canada's first census occurred in 1666, by order by New France's Intendant Jean Talon. "The census counted the colony's 3,215 inhabitants and recorded their age, sex, marital status and occupation. In light of the need for information to help plan and develop the Colony of New France, Talon did much of the data collection personally, visiting settlers throughout the colony." The census hasn't been publicly very controversial at all, with the privacy issues often raised generally not being raised. That's why it's so surprising that the Conservative federal government felt it had to abolish the mandatory long-form census.

The potential consequences are severe, inasmuch as the sectors of the population less likely to turn in the long-form census (immigrants, the poor, et cetera) are already likely to be undercounted.

Transit: Municipal governments look at detailed census data before deciding whether to make changes to transit routes or increase service. Less reliable data would mean more headaches for planners and — potentially — transit users.

Education: School boards use detailed census data to predict future enrolment, which affects their plans for staffing, the need for new schools and special programs such as minority-language training.

Social services: Without detailed census data, it may be more difficult to determine local needs for daycare, subsidized housing and services for disabled people.

Help for the unemployed: The details in the census data make it easier for governments to determine which parts of the country may need more help in dealing with unemployment and job retraining.

Québec, with its Institut de la statistique, is the only province capable of replicating the fine detail provided by Statistics Canada's long-form census.

The list of groups opposed to the change comprises virtually every sector in Canadian public line. Religious groups (Jews, evangelical Christians, "mainline" Christians, doubtless et cetera), cities in fast-growing Alberta, First Nations groups already unhappy with Statistics Canada's perceived issues, my hometown of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, the city of Toronto, practically everyone in Québec, the government of Nunavut, obviously the opposition Liberal Party and New Democratic Party along with the Bloc Québécois ...

Practically the only people or organizations, besides the government, supporting the scrapping of the mandatory long-form census are groups like the libertarian Fraser Institute, which said that groups which made use of the mandatory long-form census were free-riding on government and that it's time that this stopped.

I'm unconvinced that this is anything but a political move. Already, the government backed down and added language-related questions to the mandatory short-form census in order to limit the damage among Francophones; many Francophone minority organizations were strongly opposed to the change, some going as far as preparing to launch a court battle. Does the suggestion that the government is trying to preserve privacy make sense given how its planning to pass mandatory boaters' registration, say, never mind the cornucopia of information available to the Canadian government thanks to the Canadian habit of funding public services with income tax (among other taxes). Oh, and there's been talk about the Canadian government following a Scandinavian model and not conduct a detailed census, rather collating data from different government agencies (never mind Canada's particular privacy laws).

It should be obvious that I favour the retention--restoration, now, sadly--of the mandatory long-form census. (I filled it in last time and didn't feel intruded upon, for whatever that's worth.) The arguments of groups like the Fraser Institute and political parties like the one currently forming the federal government that the mandatory long-form census is intrusive is, besides representing a complaint that really and truly hasn't been voiced before, overlooks the fact that detailed statistics are necessary if a government is to manage a complex society, and if society itself--including, say, blogs and bloggers like this one and me--is to understand itself. For shame.


Brandt said...

Sounds like the Canadian Right has followed the hard-right turn of the American Right... :-(

Jonathan said...

Uh, and ignores the fact the census is CONFIDENTIAL. If it's confidential, how can it be intrusive? Their argument is a privacy one, not that time is wasted on it.

Are they suggesting that all the anonymous polling done by research companies is a de-facto privacy violation?