Opt-in pro­vi­sion on short-form cen­sus un­wise

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - FORUM - BILL WAISER Waiser is a dis­tin­guished pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at the Univer­sity of Saskatchewan.

It is en­cour­ag­ing to hear me­dia re­ports state that the long-form cen­sus could once again be­come manda­tory, and that the change might be made in time for the June 2016 cen­sus.

Such a step would re­store pub­lic con­fi­dence in Statis­tics Canada and the in­tegrity of its data col­lec­tion.

But there is an­other out­stand­ing cen­sus is­sue — this one deal­ing with the short-form cen­sus and the use of the in­formed-ques­tion ques­tion — that needs im­me­di­ate at­ten­tion, too.

In 2006, for the first time in Cana­dian his­tory, all cen­sus par­tic­i­pants were asked to in­di­cate, by check­ing a box, whether their re­sponses on the short form could be made pub­lic af­ter 92 years. The form was not de­stroyed if re­spon­dents said no or ne­glected to an­swer the ques­tion, but ac­cess to it in its name spe­cific for­mat was for­ever pro­hib­ited.

Cana­di­ans com­plet­ing the cen­sus had never been asked this “opt-in” ques­tion be­fore 2006. In­deed, all pre-1916 Cana­dian cen­suses, with their name-spe­cific per­sonal in­for­ma­tion, have been made pub­licly avail­able af­ter a min­i­mum 92-year wait­ing pe­riod.

But the opt-in ques­tion in 2006 and again in 2011 un­der­mined this sen­si­ble pol­icy with un­for­tu­nate con­se­quences.

Only six of ev­ery 10 Cana­di­ans agreed to make their cen­sus in­for­ma­tion avail­able to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. If that had been the case in the past, then much of the rich cen­sus data avail­able to­day to fam­i­lies and re­searchers would be for­ever closed to the pub­lic.

Thank­fully, it does not have to be this way.

There is a clause (2.1) in the 2005 “Act to Amend the Statis­tics Act” (S.C. 2005, c. 31) that re­quires a re­view of the in­formed-con­sent ques­tion “no later than two years be­fore the tak­ing of the third cen­sus of pop­u­la­tion (2016) ... by any com­mit­tee of the Sen­ate, the House of Com­mons or both Houses of Par­lia­ment that may be des­ig­nated or es­tab­lished for that pur­pose.”

Clause 2.2 re­quires a re­port on the mat­ter. That dead­line has un­for­tu­nately been missed. And by fail­ing to con­duct this manda­tory re­view of the opt-in ques­tion be­fore the tak­ing of the 2016 cen­sus, the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment and, by ex­ten­sion, Statis­tics Canada, will be in vi­o­la­tion of the 2005 leg­is­la­tion.

Such a re­view should not be ca­su­ally dis­missed as an un­nec­es­sary an­noy­ance.

Cana­di­ans need to know that the sta­tis­ti­cal in­tegrity of the cen­sus as a source of ge­nealog­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal in­for­ma­tion, es­pe­cially about ev­ery­day Cana­di­ans, has been for­ever com­pro­mised by the in­formed-con­sent ques­tion. They also need to be aware that the United States does not have an opt-in ques­tion, and that Amer­i­cans se­cure ac­cess to name-spe­cific cen­sus data af­ter only 70 years.

And they need to be in­formed that the pub­lic re­lease of Cana­dian cen­sus data in the past did not elicit a word of com­plaint.

Per­haps, most im­por­tantly, Cana­di­ans need to be re­minded that it is im­pos­si­ble to­day to know what might be his­tor­i­cally im­por­tant to­mor­row, and that their de­scen­dants, es­pe­cially their grand­chil­dren, could be de­prived ac­cess to fam­ily in­for­ma­tion that might not be oth­er­wise avail­able.

Yes, there are hun­dreds of thou­sands of Cana­di­ans who have put all kinds of per­sonal in­for­ma­tion on Face­book and sim­i­lar so­cial me­dia. But not ev­ery­body posts de­tails of their life on­line. And will that in­for­ma­tion be there in the fu­ture given the ephe­meral na­ture of the tech­nol­ogy?

At least with the cen­sus, there will be a re­li­able source of in­for­ma­tion about all Cana­di­ans — but only if the in­formed-con­sent ques­tion is re­moved.

It is im­per­a­tive, then, that the leg­is­lated re­view be held as soon as pos­si­ble.

The opt-in ques­tion should not stand in the way of Cana­dian his­tory and fam­ily re­search.

Surely, that is just as im­por­tant as a manda­tory long-form cen­sus.

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