Monday, September 28, 2015

Two links on the census in Canada and on public institutional memory

As Canada prepares next month's federal election, the governing Conservatives being opposed by a variety of other political parties, the census that the Conservative government undermined is a simmering issue for reasons described in Donovan Vincent's Toronto Star article "Reviving the census debate".

Researchers, public policy advocates, statisticians, business groups, economists — and the Liberal and NDP parties — continue to call for the mandatory long-form questionnaire to be brought back, arguing that important statistical data is getting lost.

In a package of recently proposed reforms on transparency, the Liberals are promising to immediately restore the mandatory long form if they form government in the Oct. 19 federal election.

And Jean Ong, a spokesperson for the NDP, said in a statement that the party has long advocated for the restoration of the long-form census and continues to do so.

The lost data has massive implications for public policy decisions, business planning and a host of other areas, proponents of the mandatory long survey say.

Yet so far, the census hasn’t been in the spotlight on the campaign trail. But could it become an election issue?

Paul Jacobson, a Toronto economics consultant who relies heavily on census data for his work, believes it should. He says business planning is being seriously harmed by the new census data collection system.

“All the money in the world given to business surveyors could not replace the (mandatory) long form, period. You need a mandatory survey to get the quality of data you need to make good comparisons in small areas. That’s how you do business planning,” Jacobson says.

Stephen Toope, president of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, a national public policy advocate for Canada’s scholars, students and practitioners in the humanities and social sciences, says the “essence of the concern” about not having the mandatory long-form census is the impact on public policy.

“Thinking about questions around immigration, social service, children’s health and what kind of investments need to be made and where they need to be made — if we don’t know who is where, it’s very difficult to make informed policy decisions,” Toope says.

This is part of a broader disturbing trend in Canadian governance, away from the collection of vital data and towards increasing inaccessibility. The implications of this was described ably in Anne Kingston's front-cover article in MacLean's, "Vanishing Canada: Why we’re all losers in Ottawa’s war on data". The census is not alone in being gutted.

Stories about government data and historical records being deleted, burned—even tossed into Dumpsters—have become so common in recent years that many Canadians may feel inured to them. But such accounts are only the tip of a rapidly melting iceberg. A months-long Maclean’s investigation, which includes interviews with dozens of academics, scientists, statisticians, economists and librarians, has found that the federal government’s “austerity” program, which resulted in staff cuts and library closures (16 libraries since 2012)—as well as arbitrary changes to policy, when it comes to data—has led to a systematic erosion of government records far deeper than most realize, with the data and data-gathering capability we do have severely compromised as a result.

Statistics Canada no longer provides a clear snapshot of the country, says John Stapleton, a Toronto-based social policy consultant. “Our survey data pixelates—it’s a big blur. And the small data, we don’t know if it’s right.”

How many Canadians live in poverty now, compared to 2011? We don’t know; changes in income-data collection has made it impossible to track. Austerity measures, ironically, have resulted in an inability to keep track of the changes: StatsCan used to provide detailed, comprehensive data on salaries and employment at all levels of government; now we can’t tell where, or how deep, the cuts have been.

Disappearing data is only one part of a larger narrative of a degradation of knowledge—one that extends from federal scientists being prevented from talking about their research on topics as mundane as snow to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission being forced to take the federal government to court to obtain documents that should have been available under Access to Information. The situation has descended into farce: Library and Archives Canada (LAC), entrusted with preserving historic papers, books, photographs, paintings, film and artifacts, was so eroded by cuts that, a few years ago, author Jane Urquhart was unable to access her own papers, donated to LAC in the 1990s.

The result is a crisis in what Canadians know—and are allowed to know—about themselves.

Without accurate and dependable sources of data, Kingston documents how difficult it is for Canadians to know what has been happening with their country, and to respond to these changes with useful actions. If Canadians lack good data on poverty among First Nations, for instance, or on particular types of pollution, or indeed on the effectiveness of past government policy, this makes it all the more difficult for Canadians to respond effectively. I would speculate that, if a government does not want to act in a particular area and wants to make it more difficult for people and governments to act in this area in the future, poor data collection would inhibit this.

The census, in Canada, is an election issue. I really hope that this issue will have serious consequences for the government that made it so.

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