The Voluntary Long-Form Census

The fact that the federal government’s long-form census was compulsory and backed by legal sanctions of fines and jail time has always been a problem with me. I have received the long-form census on occasion and dutifully have filled it in, and would have done so whether the legal hammer was poised over my head or not. But the fact that the government made it a criminal offense if I refused to give up my information stuck in my craw, although my moral indignation never reached the point where I was prepared to challenge the bureaucrats in Ottawa and stand hard on my principles.

But now the federal government has decided that the long-form is intrusive and are going to make it a voluntary process.

The Conservative government is scrapping the mandatory long census form for the 2011 census, replacing it with a voluntary national household survey.

All Canadians will still receive a mandatory short census. One in three households will be sent the new household survey as well. Previously, one in five households were sent the mandatory long-form census.

A small victory, as even if the long-form is decriminalized, the rest of the census is still covered by the old legislation. So the government isn’t concerned about the fact that not filling in a government form could turn you into a criminal, but with the fact that the questions are intrusive. I guess you take your wins where you find them.

There have, however, been others who have made a stand based on their beliefs. Or at least one person. Maybe more, but that’s not in my data bank.

In 2006, Sandra Finley went to court over her refusal to complete the census forms. Although her problem was not with the compulsive requirements to comply. She was incensed with Statistics Canada decision to buy software from defence manufacturer Lockheed Martin in the U.S. and the possibility of the census material being accessed by other than Canadian government sources.

The Conservative government’s decision to do away with the mandatory long census has not satisfied the concerns of Canada’s top crusader against the survey.

Cabinet had decided to do away with the long form in 2011 and replace it with a voluntary survey in response to criticism from some Canadians that the process was coercive and intrusive.

But Sandra Finley, the Saskatoon activist who made national headlines for going to court over her refusal to fill out the 2006 census, is unimpressed.

She and others have balked at the Statistics Canada-led process because of the fact the agency bought software from defence manufacturer Lockheed Martin back in 2003.

Although the agency insisted before the 2006 census that only federal employees would have access to the data collected, that did not assuage Finley and others who protested the link to Lockheed. The short census will remain mandatory for all Canadians and will still be based on Lockheed Martin technology.

“As far as I’m concerned, my objection to them contracting out to Lockheed Martin is stronger than ever based on what I’ve learned over seven years,” said Finley, who is still in court with Statistics Canada.

Once the federal government announced their intention a hue and cry emanated from the media, opposition parties and various organizations that make their living from using the data that flows from the long-form. The media is looking for a story they can pumps out to the public, the opposition parties are looking for any issue they think might inflate their political credibility and the various private organizations are aghast that their livelihood may be negatively impacted.

Of course the reverberations we hear is the world coming to an end or at least civilization as we know it today. Voluntary data won’t give all the good information that everyone needs. Governments won’t be able to spend their (sorry -‘ our’) money wisely. No-one will know what the needs of the nation are. God help us!

I wonder.

I wonder when government has ever spent our money wisely. I wonder when government takes their information and makes long-term social decisions rather than short-term political decisions. I wonder how accurate and meaningful the coerced information is. My life is full of wonder.

As to the last bit of wondering, while working in the business world, I received forms from various government departments demanding information on different aspects of our operations. Since we didn’t compile any data in their areas of concern and because they were insistent that I should comply, I would fill in figures gleaned from thin air and send them off. That seemed to make everyone happy. But I used to think that I probably wasn’t the only recipient of these forms who was doing this and wondered what world changing decisions were being made, based on these guesstimates, by some obscure bureaucrats labouring in the dark recesses of some Ottawa office building.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that other than providing a living for a lot of people, I have no great confidence that all of this material has any real value other than giving various groups and individuals the enjoyment of arguing about what it all really means.

As for the intrusiveness of the long-form, I like Ezra Levant’s take on it.

The regular census is short. It asks who lives in your house and some questions about how everyone is related to each other. It also asks about language use — information that fuels Canada’s bilingualism policy. That’s about it.

But the long-form census feels like it was written by the biggest gossips in the country. The 2011 version hasn’t been released yet, but the 1996 one can still be seen online.

Some of it is the basic stuff. But how about this: Question 7 demanded everyone in your home describe any physical or mental-health condition, and what limits that places on your school, work or home life.

Sorry, that’s just none of the government’s business. It’s supposed to be a census, not a peek through a family’s medicine cabinet.

This so-called census also asked Canadians to tell the government who did what chores and errands in the house — which parent helped the kids with homework; which parent drove them to sports; who did the shopping; who talked “with teens about their problems.”

And a helpful bureaucrat would be right there to write it all down.

That’s not what really bothered me, though.

Question 19 demanded Canadians define themselves according to ethnicity.

And “Canadian” wasn’t an option.

The census gave a list of different alternatives including some colours (white and black) and a continent (Latin American). What would U.S. President Barack Obama, whose mom was white, choose — both white and black? Why weren’t brown or red or yellow allowable colours?

What on earth does “Latin American” mean as an ethnicity? Latin Americans come in every race and ethnicity — black, Aboriginal, white or, like Alberto Fujimori, the former president of Peru, Japanese. And why was Latin America a choice, but not North America?

Stranger still, black was actually explained not by colour but by country. It included African, which would include white South Africans.

But Arab/West Asian was another choice, even though the examples included Egyptian and Moroccan (which are in Africa, not Asia) and Iranian, which is a country that is overwhelmingly Persian in ethnicity — not Arab.

Some ethnically homogenous countries were listed (Filipino, Korean, Japanese, Chinese) but many others weren’t.

The choices just made no sense.

And then there was the answer marked “other”.

In another question, the census asked your “cultural group.” It listed only one religion (Jewish), and several countries. Is Jewish a country?

Given that “etc.” was also listed, it’s not surprising that in a recent census, 21,000 Canadians described themselves as Star Wars Jedi Knights.

What are these bizarre questions and answers about? The census form was perfectly frank: It stated it was for government programs that use racial quotas — also called affirmative action. As Canadians, we like to think we’re equal before the law. But Statistics Canada collects this information to treat us unequally.

Let the nosy bureaucrats pound sand: Scrapping the mandatory long-form census is a small victory against big government.

Sounds good to me.

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4 Responses to “The Voluntary Long-Form Census”

  1. Joan Gaetz Says:

    I looked at the actual 1996 Census Long Form questionnaire and I urge your readers to do the same. You write:

    This so-called census also asked Canadians to tell the government who did what chores and errands in the house — which parent helped the kids with homework; which parent drove them to sports; who did the shopping; who talked “with teens about their problems.”

    This question specifically refers to unpaid work and these are only examples of what that “work” might entail. The examples may be simplistic but if you alter the language to tutor, housekeeper, chauffeur or counsellor the contribution takes on a different connotation as to the costs of these services if they were purchased by an individual or paid for by insurance or benefits plans.

    That being said, I don’t believe that the government is going to do anything with that sort of information that is useful or helpful to Canadians.

    Your column certainly made me consider the import of the questions more carefully.

  2. Leni Pearce Says:

    It is a relief that I will not be prosecuted for refusing to fill in the National Household Survey. Nevertheless, it still asks the same outrageously intrusive questions as the long form census, and this information can be traced back to specific individuals — an even more alarming idea when one considers that the government is still using software and hardware from a US arms merchant with a seedy reputation and a strong link to US Homeland Security.

    Information necessary to assess the need for services can be gathered anonymously. There is no need to violate tĥe privacy of any individual to determine these things.

    And regarding the question about the ethnicity of your ancestors, how is that relevant to a need for roads, family services, schools, etc., etc., etc.

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