The other day, I learned that the Harper Government (HG) has decided to eliminate the compulsory long census form, and replace it with a voluntary survey instead. Their reason?
“Our feeling was that the change was to make a reasonable limit on what most Canadians felt was an intrusion into their personal privacy in terms of answering the longer form,” – Erik Waddell, spokesman for Industry Minister Tony Clement.
“Most Canadians”? Really? As a researcher, I’m very interested in which data, exactly, lead the HG to conclude that “most Canadians” feel that the long census form is an invasion of their privacy. (Did they take a poll? Send out a survey? Cold-call a random sampling of Canadians? Mail out a questionnaire? Develop a census on the census?) Thanks to the article linked above, I now know of one such individual: Don Rogers, the man responsible for the “Count Me Out” campaign against the census. According to him,
“The Canadian census was originally a count of heads and cows … and we would certainly like it to revert back, if not all the way to that point, but to a collection of very basic, minimal information […] There’s no need to ask how many rooms in your house, there’s no need to ask how many hours of unpaid work do the members of your household do.”
Hmm… It seems that Rogers isn’t aware that census data are a) anonymous; b) used by institutions other than the government, such as public interest groups, non-profit organizations, universities, NGOs, public and private research centres, community agencies, as well as individual members of the general public; and c) analyzed and disseminated in aggregate form. So, he can lay his libertarian fears to rest. The Big Bad Government won’t be banging down his door any time soon. (Unless he tries to pay for his health care services in chickens which, given the thrust of his anti-census argument, is not outside the realm of possibility.)
Here’s the problem with the HG’s latest decision: not all data are created equal. They are profoundly affected by source, sample size, methods of collection, and methods of analysis. Weaken one or more of these areas, and you reduce the reliability and validity (and, therefore, the utility) of your data. So, the HG’s decision to weaken the source and sample size of the most important, policy-relevant, information about who Canadians are – how we live, where we live, where we work, how we get from Point A to Point B, our level of education, our countries of birth, our levels of income, the structure of our families, the conditions of our workplaces, the status of our health, and so on – will also weaken the quality of that information. In effect, the HG is telling us that we don’t deserve to have public policy decisions, which can improve the quality of our lives, informed by reliable and valid data. What we do deserve, apparently, is the death of smart government, a less-competitive economy, and a weakened democracy.
Thanks a lot.
Keep the Canadian Census Long Form