07.26.2010 06:12 AM

Census senselessness: from today’s Hill Times


I received the long form questionnaire many years ago. I thought the questions were pretty personal – stuff about race, sexual orientation, income and so on. I wouldn’t have minded answering some of it,  I guess, were it not for the fact that governments generally stink at safeguarding peoples’ privacy. I mean, there’s only so many times that you can hear about health records being found in a dumpster, you know?

I received the form when John Manley was Minister of Industry, whenever that was. I recall letting him know about my census conscientious objector status. He said he thought a stint in jail would improve my character. I didn’t disagree.

Now, if the long-form census becomes a voluntary process, I suppose it’ll address the concerns of some people. But for me, I objected to, one, the nature of the questions and, two, all governments’ seeming inability to keep secret the answers we give. The fact that they threaten to take you to court for failing to go along with such a process obviously makes it worse.

Some Liberals have said I shouldn’t offer my opinion about this issue – a few have even said I should be kicked out of the party over it!  When they calm down, or get medicated (or both), I suggest they do a Google search. The sad tale is there for all to see: over the years, there have ministerial resignations, investigations by privacy commissioners, and many, many media stories about governments – of all stripes, at all levels – losing people’s private information.

For me, this isn’t some libertarian thing. When governments get serious about protecting our information, I’ll get serious about their demands that I provide very personal information. But in the digital age, their sloppiness has only gotten worse, not better.

But does this mean I think Tim’s team has handled it well?  Um, no. I think Clement et al. were throwing a bone to their neo-con and so-con base, but they didn’t expect the big blowback they’ve gotten from everyone else. They’ve politically mismanaged the file from start to finish.

But that doesn’t mean it’s an unhelpful debate. I think it’s good that we’re talking about this.


  1. bigcitylib says:

    No I doubt there’ll be rioting in the street. Folks like Mark Carney of the Bank Of Canada don’t want riots in the street. They want to know that the statistical products they’re are using are reliable. And that’s not something I think any of the three people in that article are in a position to speak to. Those who are in a position to say believe it will have consequences (for literally millions of dollars of business decision-making).

  2. Steve T says:

    So let’s say we agree on the removal of jail terms for those who don’t complete the long-form census. Next topic – what consequences, if any, are there for those who lie on the census form? There are plenty of people out there who would take pleasure in filling out their form to mis-represent their information. Say you are gay when you are straight. Say you are white when you are Chinese. Etc etc.. Some of it may be to drive a particular political agenda, but much of it may be just general troublemaking. The statistics that are gathered become completely useless. To me, this is a greater sin than just opting out of filling out the census.

    I would suggest that the long-form census is voluntary to complete, but if you fill it out, you must do so truthfully – under penalty of law.

    • ernie says:

      whenever I am called by a telephone pollster asking if I would answer a few questions, I agree but state that I intend to lie in my answers. Inevitably, this does not disturb the pollster who just wants to move on to the next person.

  3. Paul R. Martin says:

    Where are the protest marchers? Why aren’t employees of Statistics Canada waving protest banners during their lunch hour? Why isn’t the Tim Horton’s crowd up in arms? Why shouldn’t Stats Canada be allowed to ignore the Charter? Why doesn’t Harper understand that Big Brother knows best? According to the Globe and Mail, Harper (a trained economist) approved the elimination of the mandatory long form back in December.

    • Namesake says:

      So much polemics, so little time…

      – No protest marchs because this Charter- & liberty-loving gov’t has demonstrated they’ll round peaceful assemblers up and drag them off to dog-kennel holding cells;

      – No StatCan employee protests because under this non-transparent gov’t there are gag orders against civil servants. They’d lose their jobs &/or have their characters assassinated (Colvin, Keen) & become unemployable if they speak out after resigning;

      – No full-scale revolt among the Tim Horton’s crowd, yet, but they’re far from being in lock-step about this: Angus Reid conducted a follow-up poll right after Sheikh resigned & found only 24% of Cndns as a whole agree the long form is intrusive and Canadians should not be forced to answer it & 58% think it should remain mandatory, & there was low support for the change even among those who voted Cons. in the 2008 election: only 31%, agree the long form is intrusive & shouldn’t be mandatory (compared to 19% for both Liberal and NDP voters) & 53% of Tory supporters believe it’s important to make policy decisions in all areas of public service and should remain mandatory. (Summary: http://www.visioncritical.com/2010/07/canadians-believe-the-federal-government-should-retreat-on-census/ Full Report: http://www.visioncritical.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/2010.07.24_Census_CAN.pdf

      – It’s unlikely mandatory StatCan surveys “ignore the Charter.” They’ve been conducted for the past 38 years since the Charter became entrenched w/o being ID’d as a breach in court, & the latest long form survey passed a privacy audit.
      But if the long form does get subjected to a charter challenge & fails, then the mandatory monthly Labour Force Survey will likely fail, too: are you prepared to live with that? The biz. comm’y won’t; it’s too important to economic planning & setting wages.

      – re: Harper — a trained economist — approved the elimination of the mandatory long form”: funny you should mention that; there’s a lot of hypocrisy here:
      i) he doesn’t discount the need for the mandatory survey because he doesn’t think the data is needed, but for libertarian reasons, as his own thesis advisor notes in the Globe article
      ii) as Susan Delacourt noted, “this La Presse story… reveals that Harper used long-form census data for his M.A. thesis.” He used the Labour Force Survey to argue against Keynsian economics, and the LFS, like so many surveys, depends on — i.e., needs — the accurate detailed demographic info. provided by a reliably randomly sampled long form census to get the right weightings to be able to project the small sample sizes to the population as a whole.
      Link for Harper’s actual MA thesis: http://www.pabsta.qc.ca/files/harper.pdf

      iii) Despite arguing against the Keynesian theories which underwrite stimulus spending in that thesis, he then violated everything he believed in as a “trained economist” when he turned around and shamelessly porkbarrelled his way into people’s favour last year: a fact which didn’t escape his base:

      • Namesake says:

        P.S., further to losing the Timmy’s crowd: this just in —

        Seniors (actually, anywhere from 55+, as CARP defines its membership now) — you know, the ones who actually vote, and who tend to vote Conservative — are pretty strongly against this.

        In an (online) poll w. over 4,000 respondents, 77% think Clement should reverse his decision. Over a third (36.5%) say it’s made them less likely to vote Con. in the next election. And it’s unlikely to last, of course, but this has lost the party about one-quarter of its support (a drop from “41.1 per cent [who] would vote for the Tories in [CARP’s] July 12th poll on health care compared to 31.8 per cent in this poll [on the census change]”:


        The detailed retiree poll results are at:

        • Paul R. Martin says:

          Get a grip on yourself. The topic just isn’t worth getting your shorts in such a knot. Have you ever tried Valium? The President of the Liberal Party recommends it.

          • Namesake says:

            It _is_ a big deal to policy researchers, like I was (& want to be again) & to good-hearted people who advocate change; & to anyone who wants good evidence-based decisions. Not so much who just want to protect the status quo, apparently.

            But it’s interesting that the Cons also want to be the thought police and tell people what is and isn’t important enough to get upset about… and are telling people to take their Soma. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brave_New_World

          • Paul R. Martin says:

            I did get the impression thay you (Namesake) are in favour of a big government that takes money from ordinary taxpayers in order to administer a lot of government programs, which in turn generates numerous ejobs for civil servants and consultants. There are other people who advocate a different type of change than you. Some people want a less intrusive government that taxes less, does not think that one size fits all, and is less intrusive in the lives of Canadians. We will agree on very little, so, lets just agree to disagree and live in peace.

          • Namesake says:

            Worrying about higher taxes just isn?t worth getting your shorts in a knot. Take a pill.

          • Paul R. Martin says:

            Just 1 pill? My cardiologist has prescribed several which for several years, I have been paying for out of my own pocket. Lower taxes help me. Thank you Mr. Harper. Cheers!

          • Namesake says:

            Well, maybe we can meet in the middle after all: if the Libs promise to get that Pharmacare thing going again, you could vote for them and still be able to afford the inevitable tax cuts that will be needed to fix the Cons’ still burgeoning deficit.

            Otherwise, yes, hopefully we can both agree to the right to be able to keep caring and speaking out about the things we care about, no? (with or w/o our trusty pills)

          • another Greg says:

            You mean it is sensible to publish false innuendo against an issue, but insane to publish correction?

          • another Greg says:

            Sorry, that did not appear where I hoped…

            Paul R. Martin, you mean it is sensible to publish false innuendo against an issue, but insane to publish correction?

        • Zachary Scott Smith says:

          Hey Jar Jar Binks, it is ZSS ZSS fly here and I believe I just found some more Liberal SH*T with your name all over it.

          People who tend to vote conservative, do not tend to belong to groups with Susan Eng and you should find a better source for your mis-information, this one is well just Sh*tty.

      • Zachary Scott Smith says:

        Hey Jar Jar Binks, it is ZSS ZSS fly here again and I believe I just found al whole lot more Liberal SH*T with your name all over it.

        One has to wonder how you missed the riot, unless you were trading in your brown shirt for a black shirt and got placed in one of these nice holding cells.

        As for your other Liberal talking points, Canadians have tuned out that in ever increasing numbers.

    • Robin says:

      Yeah, but Harper (a trained economist you are keen to point out) also didn’t see the recession coming and he also vehemently denied that Canada would fall into budget deficits.

      Harper is an ideologue and has abandoned all his economic sensibilities. Go read his MA thesis supervised by Frank Atkins at U of Calgary and you’ll swear a completely different person wrote it.

  4. ktron says:

    Counting people: Leviathan’s spyglass | The Economist

    • Paul R. Martin says:

      Thanks for the link. To borrow a quote from Liberal Party President, Alf Apps, the people who object to the end of the mandatory long form should “take a Valium”.

      • Warren says:

        Interesting comms strategy, there.

      • bigcitylib says:

        What the Scandenavian countries mentioned in the Economist article do requires a national ID number. The U.K.s plan orginally did as well, although that bit seems to have gone by the wayside. In any case, if you have privacy concerns about the long form, but you’re ok with a national ID card, then you have your priorities messed up.

        In any case, what the Tories are proposing isn’t at all like what these countries have done/are doing. They want us to have the same old census, but made worse.

    • WJM says:

      “If statisticians in Britain get their way, for instance, the census planned for next year could be the country’s last. Instead, they are considering gathering information from the vast, centralised databases held by government, such as tax records, benefit databases, electoral lists and school rolls”

      So…. the solution to the supposed intrusiveness of the census on people’s privacy, is to instead of having a central statisics agency with a very good track record of protecting individual privacy, to have government departments and agencies, many of which with a much less stellar track record, share information that they are currently legally enjoined from sharing?


  5. Most people do not want to take the time or enjoy filling out forms. Over the years I have completed short and long forms. I agree that governments have a problem protecting information. I do not know or heard of a person who has gone to jail for failing to fill out the form. Apparently these statistics are valuable to various groups.

    • Namesake says:

      It should be noted that there hasn’t been a _single_ breach of personal info. on StatCan’s part identified by _any_one that I’m aware of, after tracking this issue extensively all month. And there are good reasons for that: StatCan has lots of protocols to safeguard the secrecy of the personal info. — far more than any other govt dept. And far stiffer penalties against violations than any other: not just termination of employment, but a $1,000 fine &/or 6 months jail.

      As noted before, the early release of the embargoed aggregate LFS stats WK found doesn’t qualify as a breach of private, personal info. Nor does the story related by the poster on this & quite a few media sites about the enumerator who ‘outed’ him as a scofflaw or refusenik to another neighbour: it was the _lack_ of personal info she disclosed. The only story I’ve seen where there was personal info. with specific people’s name attached was where someone — presumably a corrupt Postal employee — was eventually arrested after intercepting eight completed census forms, as well as some credit card applications & other identity theft type material. But that’s not StatCan’s fault: they didn’t lose this data — they never got it.

      • Warren says:

        Fine. So are the departments/boards/agencies to which SC transmits/sells data as careful as they need to be, in every instance?

        I’ve worked in government, and I can tell you they aren’t.

  6. William M says:

    If Harper had this in mind when he prorogued, why wasn’t this part of the speech from the throne?

  7. Mulletaur says:

    No long form census means no meaningful information on equality and equity, particularly regarding poverty and racial issues, and no means of ensuring that government policy is effective. If you abolish the collection of meaningful statistics, you abolish rationality in government. It’s just as simple as that.

    Objecting to the collection of such information on the basis of privacy concerns is silly. Do you withdraw from the banking system because you are afraid that banks will lose your information ? Do you use credit cards at all ? Even paying your bills has risk, as Toronto Hydro customers recently found out. I guess you could try to become ‘Reg Blank’, but I’m sure you are not.

    Government can always do better, but that’s no reason to abolish it. However, that is precisely what the Harper Conservatives are trying to do – abolish government, at least at the federal level. Let’s not play their game, shall we ?

    • Jan says:

      Our Census has the reputation it has because of the reliability of it’s data and the freedom from government interference. Harper’s plan is a direct attack on both of those. I wonder what the OECD will have to say about that. Greece has just been chastised for mucking around with their economic data and one of the financial aid conditions is that they perform a reliable census.

      • Namesake says:

        Sort of: the quote you’re probably thinking of is from yesterday’s article about how that other basket case economist is talking thru his hat, now, too:


        “One need only look to Europe to see the pitfalls of politicians meddling with data. The European Union blamed government interference and shoddy accounting practices for serious errors in Greek deficit data last year. Fudged deficit projections by Greece’s statistics agency helped bring on Europe’s debt crisis, which shook world markets as well as confidence in the euro. A condition of Greece’s bailout package was that the country to create an independent statistics agency before it received any rescue loans.”

  8. northbaytrapper says:

    It’s personal information. Personal it should stay.
    What’s next? How often to you copulate with your wife? Are you snipped? Is your wife tied? Do you eat clams and watch chick flicks?
    Name, rank, and number. That’s all they need and that’s all they should get.

    3 male children

    see…that was easy

    • Namesake says:

      Fair enough, as far as the original need-to-know, stripped down purpose of the Census.

      That’s why it’s odd that they’re still going ‘way beyond that & asking the very intrusive, very personal q. of everyone in the mandatory short form what the nature of the relationship is b/w everyone in the household — incl. whether they’re a same-sex married or common-law relationship (and there’s a write-in option for, say, “Roommates with benefits”).

      If they were serious or sincere in their “no personal q’s should be coercive” stance, those ‘what goes on in your bedroom’ q’s should have beeen dropped from the short form q’rre they announced at the same time that they announced the long form wouldn’t & shouldn’t be mandatory. But they weren’t:

      And this isn’t a hypothetical: at least one person has very publicly complained about this: http://www.nationalpost.com/todays-paper/None+their+business/3316750/story.html

      And as we’ve just seen from Stock’s johnny-on-the-spot response to the _one_ affirmative action complaint about fed. civil service competitions & Tony’s manning the barricades on the handful of census complaints on his ‘Twitterverse’ (his word), one complaint is all it takes for this ever so responsive gov’t to right coercive govt wrongs.

      So I suppose we can look forward to that change, as well… unless, of course, freedom has nothing to do with it, & this gov’t only wants to stop collecting the info. that it isn’t interested in hearing about.

      • northbaytrapper says:

        Nice ramble…very rambly….but a good ramble.

        I agree with you in a completely stripped down census. I don’t quite see your connection to the discrimination case in Ontario? Are you saying that if a single Hindu man was denied application, that there would not have been a furor and immediate action taken?

        • Namesake says:

          My pt. about Day seeming to want to put the brakes on hiring restricted to certain equity groups on the basis of just one complaint was just that they now hereby have grounds to take out all those relationship q’s out of the mandatory short form census, since there’s manifestly been at least one complaint. I.e., can we expect any consistency from these guys?

          • northbaytrapper says:

            Namesake = “put the brakes on hiring restricted to certain equity groups ”

            Hate to break it to you Namesake, but that’s racism. If it takes one case to dismantle the insidious thing, then so be it. I have a feeling I’m in the majority on this one (for a change).

          • Namesake says:

            Look, I’m not taking any position on the merits or justice of affirmative action hiring here: just saying that if this gov’t is really committed to changing policies on the basis of even just 1 complaint they think has merit, then they should immediately retract that partic. short-form q., too, _and_ make the long, instrusive Labour Force & Agricultural Surveys strictly voluntary, too.

            But the Cons. — who of course have been courting the immigrants’ votes, as well — have hardly been consistent about whether they consider affirmative action hiring racist or if they plan to abolish it altogether, either.

            Just Google the mad scramble, quick retraction headline “Tories insist they still support affirmative action”: 10,100 results for the past week.

    • wilson says:

      northbaytrapper, I think that is all the ‘mandatory’ info they are entitled to by law of Stats Act, that and the Ag Census.

      If the government didn’t sell our information,
      they wouldn’t need to ask the questions.

      I can’t think of what possible value to the government, knowing how many hours a day I do house work is.
      Has the Govt of Cda started up a cleaning business and is doing a feasibility study?

      What groups/organizations want to know the income in my neighbourhood?
      What do they want to sell me, or ask of me?

      • Namesake says:

        Here’s what the 2006 Census guide said about the purpose of the q’s on “how much time people spend on unpaid
        household activities. When combined with data on paid work, this information will provide a picture of how people living in Canada balance their paid and unpaid work activities.”

        Not too informative, I agree, or vital. And so you should be pleased to know that the National Statistics Council which oversees / advises StatCan has just recommended that that partic. q. be immediately dropped from the mandatory census since it doesn’t meet any of these 5 criteria which warrant a q’s inclusion in the mandatory long form:

        a. It is required by legislation or Cabinet direction,
        b. It is needed for small-area data uses for which there is no alternative data source,
        c. It is needed to create benchmarks for measuring difficult-to-reach groups and ensuring that subsequent surveys or data derived from administrative sources can be sampled or weighted to reflect accurately the overall population,
        d. It is needed to assess progress on issues of national importance, for example the economic integration of new immigrants, or
        e. It is to be used as a basis for post-censal survey sampling of relatively small or dispersed groups, for example, urban Aboriginals or people with health conditions that limit their activity.




      • northbaytrapper says:

        /agrees with wilson
        btw love your work on Tool Time

  9. Johnny Tuna says:

    If Hebert’s position is true, I must be in the minority, again. You give out so much more potentially damaging information every day when you use credit cards and debit cards or forget to shred your mail, than the info that could be used against you in the long form census. It is a purely ideological decision that will damage the ability to know information about Canada as a whole. The comparison to Scandinavian countries, as noted above, is a false comparison as they collect data year round on their citizens. And what a crock of an argument to suggest that no protests in the streets = acquiescence. Bad logic, bad policy, with far more long term consequences than money wasted on planes we do not need.

  10. Jan says:

    Warren, you do know that you’ve now aligned yourself with Stockwell Day, don’t you? Must be something in the Alberta air.

  11. Robin says:

    “I wouldn’t have minded answering some of it, I guess, were it not for the fact that governments generally stink at safeguarding peoples’ privacy. I mean, there’s only so many times that you can hear about health records being found in a dumpster, you know?”

    I’m so sick and tired of census records of the # of bathrooms in my house, without personal identifiers on them, being found in a dumpster. I’m okay with massive multinational corporations, such as credit card companies and banks, failing to secure and often compromising my financial privacy. I mean, there’s only so many times that you can hear about how census details have financially ruined an individual and his family, you know?

  12. ernie says:

    Its ironic that one of your advertisers in this discusion is a geneology company that makes extensive use of the census.

  13. Riley says:

    Stephen Taylor sums it up. This is part of the plan to weaken and gradually dismantle the welfare state. If you can’t measure it you can’t make policy about it. If you suddenly don’t know how much time people with disabilities spend travelling to work, you have no way to argue for more federal funding for handi-transit. This should be pretty obvious. The census (and Stats Canada in general) provides all kinds of ammo for critics of this government. Stats Canada gathers all kinds of hard data showing just how badly this government performs and just how out of touch with reality they are — cut literacy and build jails when crime continues to fall? WTF? Without data you can just make stuff up. The goal of this government, it seems, is to basically wreck the government so it can just be quietly dismantled and provinces can become stronger and more disparity is allowed to flourish and we can have variable justice, and all kinds of other dumb policy and outcomes.

    • Jan says:

      It’s pretty short sided on the Conservatives part. They could possibly find themselves back in opposition where the data can be used to evaluate Liberal policies.

    • another Greg says:

      Well, Riley, they do want a strong central government, building and filling jails, bombing wedding-parties on the other side of the world, and dismantling our social commons.

  14. Philip says:

    I guess the issue boils down to this for me. Will the information contained in the long form census be used to better my country, my province or my community? If the answer to that question is yes, then whatever hypothetical (and they are completely hypothetical) concerns over my individual right to privacy fall by the wayside. I believe that the answer to my question is a resounding yes. Accurate statistical data collected over the long term is critical in how we as a society grow and even prosper.
    I don’t really buy the intrusion of privacy argument put forward. Each one of us gives away an extraordinary amount of personally linked information every day, whenever we use a credit or debit card, with every on-line purchase. Take a second to think about how much you personal information you reveal, to a private company no less, every time you use the 407. Companies have access to not only your purchase history but when you apply for credit, they can open up your entire financial existence. That amount of personally linked information pales in comparison to what is available to debt collectors should you fail to make your credit card payments. I understand that all of my examples relate to information that is in some degree consensually given out by the individual but my point is that we, as a society, freely give away more personalized information on a daily basis that what the long form census could ever reveal about us. And the long form data is only used as an aggregate of all responses. There is nothing tying the long form census data to me as an individual.
    Ultimately the data will be collected by privately held companies anyway but without the long term census those groups without deep pockets will no longer have access to that data.

  15. JH says:

    I love the taxation argument that is trotted out from time to time. Especially in view of the fact that taxation was a temporary measure instituted originally to support the war effort.
    Jefferson said ‘Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed’. I did not consent to being coerced, threatened with fines and/or jail over completion of a long form census. Once again the elites, the left wing crowd and their biased media enablers are aligned against the average Canadian for reasons that have nothing to do with our welfare or well-being. Frig them all! Not Jeffersonian language – but you get the point.

  16. Gary says:

    Probably referring to the Ancestry.ca ad on this page.

  17. I have just glanced at the entries above and you guys seem to have stumbled over the truth. The truth is that every census form up to 2006 is to be made available to the public. Intact censuses are already on-line. This despite the fact that Canadians were assured repeatedly over many generations that the information on those forms would not be released to anyone outside of (now) Statistics Canada. Read what was said in the Senate regarding this (various propsed bills, the final one was S-18 2005). In June of 2005 all four parties in the House agreed to throw out all those government promises (and law) not to release the information, and instead made it the law and mandatory to release the information instead (Why? Talk to your friendly neighborhood amateur genealogist). So there is your personal census information leak. And the Government of Canada, and Statistics Canada, did it – openly, with contempt, I would say.

  18. northbaytrapper says:

    looking back, now that you’ve filled it out, how would you feel if you had been forced to fill it out?

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