Anybody that has been watching the unfolding of the census dust-up could be forgiven for no longer knowing where to place their bets. Are the Conservatives really going to go through with this disruptive measure, or are there still ways out? The answer is yes, a successful resolution is still possible (read on). But nothing is guaranteed and, wow, what a crazy ride it’s been!
With every passing day, even through the course of a given day, the path to the final outcome flips and flops, zigs and zags.
Two days ago the House of Commons Industry Committee met for the first time since the Government quietly announced its census decision. Remember? Via the Canada Gazette (the obscure journal of record for the Government of Canada’s news on federal laws and Orders-in-Council). On a Saturday. Amidst the G20 riots in Toronto.
In the ensuing weeks, Canadians have been treated to an ad-hoc mass public education campaign, compliments of wall-to-wall media coverage and endless on-line commentary (I know).
For most people, it is safe to say, the flurry of drama over statistics was a noodlescratcher until, with every passing day it became clear the myriad and unexpected ways that census data informs daily decision-making and impacts the quality of our lives. Suddenly the census saga became a parable about how an information society uses, and generates, information, and a metaphor for the role of the state.
Tuesday’s Committee hearings marked the first official exchange about the meaning of all this sound and fury. Committee MPs and the public heard from the Minister responsible for Statistics Canada, Tony Clement, about what happened and why. Testimony was also heard from former Chief Statistician Ivan Fellegi, and the Chief Statistician who had resigned just days before, Munir Sheikh. Both provided moving and forceful statements about the role of the public service, and the role of robust statistics in a modern democracy. A handful of experts and data users weighed in, as well as the requisite government supporters. The most memorable testimony for me was that of Elisapee Sheutiapik, Mayor of Iqaluit, who — in answer to the now-famous “what business is it of the government’s how many bedrooms I have?” rant-by-rote delivered by the Conservative faithful — said in quiet tones that in her community it is too cold to be homeless; and though homes tend to be small in scale, everyone accommodates those who need a place to sleep. She didn’t take it further, but could have clarified: it is not uncommon for 15 people to make do in a 2 bedroom home in this part of Canada. That, sadly, has not changed in decades. And the only reason we know that is because of the mandatory census long-form questionnaire, which can only be filled in by many residents of Iqaluit because it is mandatory and therefore the Government of Canada has to provide the resources to ensure that such people, who do not speak either official language well enough, have someone to help them understand and answer the questions.
Which makes one wonder – is the real issue of mandatory versus voluntary more about the Government’s desire to opt out of asking than citizens’ desire to opt out of telling? The Conservatives plan to spend $30 million advertising the voluntary National Household Survey, but would they spend $30 million making sure the resources are there to guarantee stories are collected from all types of Canadian communities and citizens, even if it requires face-time and translation services? Not unless the law says it’s mandatory for everyone’s story to be told, is my guess.
There is far more testimony that is worth hearing, and there is reason to hope that more Committee meetings will be scheduled at some point. But this all-day meeting aired the broad contours of the debate…and sowed the seeds for the way forward.
Forty-eight hours have now passed, and an elegantly simple exit strategy is emerging from all this testimony, an amalgam of the presentation by Don McLeish, who spoke on behalf of the Canadian Statistical Society; the presentation by Ian Mackinnon, Chair of the National Statistics Council (the advisory body to Statistics Canada), posted here by Andrew Jackson the other day; and the sage advice of Ivan Fellegi.
Here are the four planks of a graceful resolution to this standoff, a resolution that has broad support:
1) Maintain the mandatory long-form questionnaire for the 2011 Census cycle
2) Meanwhile test and assess bias in voluntary survey options, using the expertise of both Statistics Canada and the National Statistics Council, before choosing a new approach for the 2016 Census
3) Review and adjust penalties for non compliance (for example, change the Statistics Act so no one goes to jail)
4) Ensure the independence of Statistics Canada, beginning with — as Fellegi has noted repeatedly — an open and transparent process of identifying the successor to Munir Sheikh, with a visibly eminent panel of experts and statisticians on the selection committee.
This is the mantra for anyone talking to Conservative MPs in the days and weeks ahead.
Repeat after me:
Stick with what we have for now, study changes to the status quo so we know what we’re unleashing, add a get-out-of-jail-for-free card, pick the new guy well.
This is doable. This will work. Let us make it so.