Neither here nor there

Peter Pickersgill
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Ignorance is not bliss

Who would have believed something that seems totally uncontroversial could arouse such passion? The long form census.

Who would have believed something that seems totally uncontroversial could arouse such passion? The long form census.

Who knew?

Recently the Harper Government, in a quiet way, made it optional rather than mandatory to fill out the long census form. Suddenly people all over the country began to squawk.

Once they did, it became obvious why. If you are a member of a minority, you want the Government of Canada to know how many you are and where you live in order that your rights not be lost in the vast pool of the overall population.

If you suffer from a certain disease, the long form census can reveal patterns of where that disease crops up in the country. That, in turn, can help researchers to establish the links necessary in their effort to track down a cure.

Some people see the census as a useful tool, to help not just government, but the private sector, plan better.

Others see it as an invasion of privacy and none of Statistics Canada’s business.

If, for example, you are planning to establish a steak house in a given community, and the census figures show 99 per cent of the households in the neighbourhood are vegetarian, you might be best to look for another location.

Others would protest what you put in your mouth is nobody’s business but your own, and the Government of Canada should get out of the business of gathering information about us.

Or at least make it optional.

The pro-census people argue if it is optional, then only well established Canadians, with more income and education, will bother to reply. Their results risk making us to believe our country consists of wealthy, white, university graduates. This could lead to policies that unknowingly discriminate against poor, uneducated people of colour.

“The more information a government has in their possession when formulating policy the better.”

So, who is right?

In the Globe and Mail last week, pollster Allan Gregg called the difference in viewpoint “a classic culture war cleavage.” On the one hand those who valued the role of knowledge, evidence and reason versus those who favor intuition, ‘common sense’ and ‘decency.’

Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided at the end of December to scrap the mandatory long-form census despite being told by Statistics Canada officials important data would likely be lost or impaired as a result.

The prime minister rejected objections from his own officials in the Privy Council Office and senior finance department staff. The government announced the change at the end of June.

“More extreme conservative ideology,” Harper’s critics grumbled.

The chief Statistician at Stats Can resigned in protest.

University of Calgary Professor Frank Atkins, who supervised Stephen Harper’s thesis at graduate school, would explain Harper’s determination this way, according to the Globe, “I would agree with this (Harper’s) census decision from a libertarian point of view. People like me look on this as the thin edge of the wedge, sort of ‘Big Brother’s around the corner,’ if you’re forcing people to reveal knowledge even though the knowledge isn’t going to be attached to them.”

Organizations: Statistics Canada, Harper Government, Globe and Mail Privy Council Office University of Calgary Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board BP

Geographic location: Canada, Gulf of Mexico

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