The following will appear in the Hill Times on Monday, September 27, 2010
Everyone knows that the Harper government’s decision on the census is destructive madness, including the Harper government. But there is a growing sense that it’s too late to reverse the decision. It’s not.
The Harper government has been saying it’s too late to change things since early July, but all sorts of workable options have been floated for them to reverse course in the intervening months. More recently they have recruited Statistics Canada officials to carry the same message, noting that the Voluntary Household Survey is already at the printer. So what?
For months, those in the know have been saying that Ottawa could put a different cover letter on the voluntary National Household Survey (which is almost identical to the old mandatory census long-form questionnaire), update the website and create a different introductory patter for canvassers just before it hits the ground.
Ivan Fellegi, the Chief Statistician for over 20 years, added two more ways to avoid torpedoing official statistics about Canada’s population in recent comments to the Canadian Press. 1) Parliament could make the voluntary survey mandatory — essentially restoring the census — a legislative change that could be accomplished through a private member’s bill; and/or 2) the whole census could be postponed to September 2011 from May, gaining a few extra months to re-establish the long-form census.
These plain and simple choices are still on the menu in a fall Parliamentary calendar that is littered with occasions on which Harper’s census decision will be revisited.
In October alone, the short list of Parliamentary “moments” — apart from regular Question Period and Committee business — includes:
• Introduction of the Conservatives’ amendment to the Statistics Act, so that no one goes to jail for non-compliance with mandatory surveys. The Harper team has been promising the legislative change as one of the first things they would do when they returned to the House of Commons this fall. It will likely be introduced by mid October.
• Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett has submitted a private member’s bill, calling on the government to restore the mandatory long-form census questionnaire and remove jail terms from the penalties for non-compliance. It is expected to be formally introduced into the House of Commons early in October.
• A debate and a vote on the census by the full House of Commons. Though NDP Leader Jack Layton’s request to hold an emergency debate on the topic as soon as Parliament resumed was refused by the Speaker, Brian Masse (NDP) and Marc Garneau (Liberal), both members of the Industry Committee, have advanced a procedure that will lead to three hours of debate and a vote by the full House of Commons to restore the mandatory long-form census questionnaire and remove the penalty of jail sentences from the Act. These were the two recommendations of the Industry Committee report tabled in the House on September 22 by Michael Chong, the Conservative chair of the Committee. The timing of this debate and vote will be determined shortly.
There’s also the unfinished business of the summer. Munir Sheikh — placed in an impossible situation and forced to resign from Statistics Canada as Chief Statistician — still has no permanent replacement. A high-profile letter from David Dodge, Mel Cappe, Alex Himelfarb and Ivan Fellegi to the Prime Minister on September 9th set out a simple protocol for protecting the integrity and trustworthiness of all official statistics. The process of selecting a new Chief Statistician is key to this initiative. This was low-hanging fruit for the government. The fact that Harper did not bite increases, rather than diffuses, the pressure. The first party that advances this sage advice will look statesmanlike, above the fray.
Then there are the court challenges about to burst on the scene.
The high profile challenge of the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne (FCFA) du Canada goes before the federal court on Monday September 27 and Tuesday September 28. The Harper government moved two questions from the voluntary long-form questionnaire to the mandatory short-form census to prevent this action from going forward, but that was not enough to fix the problems created by the census decision. Under the Official Languages Act, the federal government is legally mandated to take meaningful measures to support the development of francophone communities throughout Canada, and this includes providing access to services and programs in such sectors as health, economic development and immigration. The FCFA will argue that without data on education, income, type of employment, health, immigrant status etc., it is difficult to see how this mandate can be fulfilled.
Though the hearing was expedited by the federal court, it is not clear the judge’s decision will be brought down quickly. Should the judge rule in the FCFA’s favour, the Harper government would likely appeal, as it did in the Omar Khadr case. But even if the thing drags on, or does not resolve in favour of the FCFA, the case will be one of at least two legal flashpoints to erupt around the census this fall.
For, in a move not totally unexpected to many observers, Aboriginal plaintiffs also filed a separate application for judicial review of the census decision to the federal court in late August. This court challenge is being spearheaded by the Native Council of Nova Scotia, Maritime Aboriginal Peoples Council, New Brunswick Aboriginal People’s Council, the Native Council of Prince Edward Island, and some individual chiefs. It, too, is likely to be expedited and heard this fall.
As the summer progressed, a startling array of groups blinded and blind-sided by the census decision wondered if legal recourse was the best option for them too, in the face of an increasingly intransigent and irrational administration. Organizations from across the country and across the political spectrum have been carefully weighing their options on whether or how to proceed through the courts. Some of those decisions have still not been finalized.
Whether through court challenges or Parliamentary maneuverings, what is clear is that the census story is not going away any time soon. The Harper team can run but they can’t hide from the consequences of their own ideas. Sadly, neither can we.
Census battles will be flaring up all over the map this fall, fights that are of the Harper Conservatives’ own making. Any one of them could prove the turning point in the saga of the senseless census decision. All of them will shed more light on who we are and what we think.
No, it’s not too late to restore the census; because it’s never too late to try to fix a bad decision.