Save Canada’s Mandatory Long Form Census! 2010/07/28

Every once in a while I get all fired up politically. Last time it was when Stephen Harper and the other major federal party leaders ganged up and denied Elizabeth May of the Green Party the right to join the debates in the last federal election. To me, that was a bunch of school yard bullies trying to pull a fast one on our democratic system. I was pissed. I wrote an email to my MP, and sent an email to all of my friends urging them to do the same thing. I must say, it felt really awesome when the bastards caved to pressure and let May join the debates.  Somehow I felt as if I had been a part of something, as if something I had done had made a difference. It felt a hell of a lot more empowering than voting ever does.

When I first heard that Stephen Harper’s conservative government had decided to make the long-form census, which is received by 1 in 5 Canadian households every 5 years, optional instead of mandatory, I didn’t really give it much thought. But as time has gone on, I’ve come to realize how ridiculously stupid and short sighted this decision is.

Just a few of the thousands of things that this data is used for:

The current argument being used by Harper is that the long form census is too long, too invasive, and the penalties for not complying are too harsh. Harper has implied that there were many complaints regarding privacy concerns and the long form census in the past, but there is absolutely nothing substantiating that claim. (We’re talking about 50 complaints to the privacy commissioner regarding the census in the last 20 years!) The problem with making the long form voluntary is that you introduce a huge sampling bias because many people will not respond, particularly those in certain groups like new immigrants, low income families, and ironically high-income families as well. This means that these groups, who are often the ones most in need of government services, will be under represented in the results, making much of the data nearly useless.

Particularly enraging is the implication by Industry Minister Tony Clement that Munir Sheikh, the chief statistician at Stats Canada, okayed the change. This turned out to be a blatant lie, and Sheikh submitted his resignation in response to it, stating that a voluntary census cannot take the place of a mandatory one, and essentially implying that it would make his job of collecting reliable stastical data impossible.  I applaud Sheikh’s integrity and dedication to his work; if only our politicians had such moral stature!

Below is a copy of a letter that I sent to both my MP (who happens to be from the Conservative Party), and the Prime Minister. I encourage everyone to send a similar letter to their MP and the PM. Feel free to copy my letter verbatim if you so desire, or create your own. The PM can be reached at pm@pm.gc.ca, and you can find out your riding’s MP and his/her email address here.

Get politically involved! It only takes a moment, and I promise, it will feel good!

Dear <MP’s name or Mr. Prime Minister>,

I am writing to implore you to save the mandatory long form census. There is no credible evidence that indicates that any significant number of  Canadians finds it an unwarranted invasion of privacy. The current government’s assertions of this without any proof cast a poor light on them, and make their intensions seem questionable at best.

The benefits that a mandatory long form census provide far outweigh any inconvenience for its intrusiveness. How will governments – your own included – be able to accurately provide services for minority groups without reliable statistical data indicating where those groups live and what services they need? How will infrastructure planning be able to be done efficiently and effectively without accurate data regarding how people commute to work, where they have recently moved from, and what kind of home they live in? This sort of information is essential in creating government policy that serves the people. How can you serve the people if you don’t know who they are or what they need?

The argument that the mandatory long form census is an invasion of privacy is clearly rebutted by the fact that the information is kept strictly confidential and cannot be traced back to its originator. If this is in fact not the case (as I have heard reference to in relation to changes made under Paul Martin to release census data forms nearly a century after they are collected for historical purposes), then please deal with the actual problem of the privacy breach. Not by throwing the baby out with the bath water as is being currently done.

I am not often sparked to action to write my MP or the Prime Minister. Please realize that this issue is much more far-reaching than your government perhaps imagined, and that many, many people are not just willing to let it go without a fight.

Sincerely,

Anna Maste
<make sure to include your address here>
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