Privacy and the Census: It’s Really Not All About You

Are there good alternatives to the mandatory census long-form questionnaire to collect the information that we need?

Last Saturday CBC’s The House had a sparkling section on the census which offered some thoughts from a Danish statistician and the views of Canada’s longest serving Chief Statistician, Ivan Fellegi. On Tuesday Tavia Grant’s superb article in the Globe and Mail looked at how Europeans tackled the challenge.

Like so many other imports from Europe, the joined-up administrative approach would be difficult to attempt in Canada, and probably unsellable politically once people realise what reliance on “administrative” data means. In fact it is likely the Conservatives and most particularly the libertarian base that supports their current position on the census who would most resist such a move.

To follow these European examples, administrative data from various sources would be collated under our Social Insurance Number ( or a new “universal” identification).

There, in one place, would be our school records and, soon, our health records. It would tell the story of how our incomes rose and fell and how often we were unemployed over our life cycle, and our interface with the State for income supports, traffic violations or more serious aspects of the justice system. As suggested in the UK, it could easily be linked to credit history. In the case of some European nations, you would have to report to the police every time you change your address or job.

Talk about Big Brother.

Compare this to the non-intrusive use of information through the Census long form.

The focus of interest is not you, but “us”: statistical categories of people just like you – the people who live in your neighbourhood, who are in your age group, with your level of education, in your ethno-racial group. Census shows how we compare to our peers and how one group compares to another.

These data don’t track you, they accurately map what is changing in Canadian society. Then it’s up to Canadian society to decide what needs to change. Neighbourhood by neighbourhood, region by region, and nationallly.

The census has changed over time to meet our needs as an evolving social experiment, an unusually diverse society keen to live their lives in relative peace and equality.
We are the United Nations in action, and Canada works partly because of what we know about ourselves and how we use that feedback loop to make adjustments.

The longer set of questions in the mandatory census provide the most helpful information for that process.

It needs to be repeated: There is no way census data can be used to identify what is going on in your personal life.

Until this census, it was possible to take a peak at the answers of individual respondents 92 years later, when presumably the people who answered the questions would be long since dead. But the Conservatives have thought ahead and guarded you against future coercive states and nosy family members, geneologists or historians who want to invade your privacy, by introducing a check-off box to make even that disclosure voluntary.

Admittedly, if you are on the receiving end of the long-form process, some lines of inquiry may seem strange coming from “the government”: How much time do you spend with your children or doing housework? When do you leave for work, how long does it take you to get there, and how do you make that journey? How many bedrooms do you have in your house? What about bathrooms?

But, as weirdly personal as some of the questions seem, it’s really not all about you.

It’s about understanding how widespread are the attributes of prosperity like adequate housing.

Or identifying where pandemics could be spread more quickly.

Or assessing the degree to which young families are spending more time at work than with their families or communities.

Or the changing patterns of how families get formed over the course of generations.

Or how much patterns vary among people with a PhD versus a certificate of high school completion.

Are we essentially the same, or are we pretty different? Are the differences converging or getting bigger?

Because these stories must mandatorily be collected from all Canadians (1 in 5 households, in every corner of the land) census data helps us see how these stories are evolving not just at the “Canadian” level, whatever that aggregate means, but in its full diversity: by region, ethno-racial background, income level, age, household type, immigrant status, and level of ability or disability.

Every single one of these parameters is changing quickly, as Canadian society ages, the labour force shrinks, we continue to flock to cities, and our legacy as a nation of immigrants takes another leap forward.

You know the punchline – we need to reverse this decision.


  • The point that the data is all about “us” rather than “you” will be lost on the political faction that opposes the census. It is precisely because the data is all about “us” that they despise it. The libertarians follow Margaret Thatcher’s credo that “there is no such thing as society”, therefore no need to measure it, or to care about any discrepancies in income, housing, or other economic indicators between classes which, in their view, don’t exist anyway.

    Stephen Harper is on the record as having called Canada a second rate welfare state. It’s significant that he has kept his head down and let Bernier and Clement take the incoming flak. Harper is quite happy to ignore his base when it suits him to do so. But on the census he’s well dug in because this is his personal goal – kill the welfare state. And anything which can render the data less useful in defending the welfare state is fine by him. Conservative blogger Stephen Taylor made exactly this point in a post that appeared on the National Post web site:

  • the one that truly blows me away is the loss of the occupational data. We have no other source- none, natta, zilch, zero, nothing.

    And again- how do we know from a voluntary survey where the bias, in terms of occupation may come in. How do we know that some occupations may be too busy/ not concerned/ have more racialized dimensions so language is a barrier or what have you and do not answer the voluntary form.

    How does one know in an already less than planned workforce, how to provide some baseline planning.

    Ohhhh I forgot- right the markets!!! Stupid me.


  • As someone who manages to be selected for the long census form every five years dispite the fact that I have not moved house in the past 33, I will admit that in the last census I did object to once again being asked to fill out the long form. I understand the need to gather such data but I do wish that this time the short form shows up at my door.

  • The irony is, who would have thought the Liberals would put themselves in the position of being FOR anything relating to mandatory disclosure to the state of so many individual facts about your personal, unique situation in life, under threat of fine and jail? The only thing more surprising about this is that the Conservatives are against it (the state using their power over individuals to get the information they want in such an institutionalized way), and want to voluntarily give up some of the governments power in this case.
    Even Jack Layton and the NDP are uncomfortable with this, as he suggested a compromise would be to remove the threat of jail time in this situation. But isn’t that all Harper and the Conservatives were trying to do in the first place?
    So the NDP and the Conservatives are against jail time, and the Liberals are for fines and jail time and mandatory disclosure.
    It’s either very ironic, or Harper has once again manipulated things, and tricked the Liberals into defaulting themselves into this postion.

    I know the information provided by a mandatory census is valuable to all sorts of people and groups and levels of government. I’m sure there are many things that are valuable in this world that all sorts of people and groups and levels of government want, but how exactly are these groups going to obtain these things? Voluntarily? How about if that doesn’t work?

    But maybe this is different because it’s neccesary for the good of so many different groups and people. The good of the group trumps the rights of the individual.

    Well I’m sorry but if I’m in a group I know whether I feel comfortable or not, and if I don’t feel comfortable in a certain situation and the good of the group argument comes up, in retrospect I question what boudaries were broken or do I have any rights in this situation.

    I’m asking the statisticians and economists and politicians to keep their keep their questions off of me thank you.

  • This is exactly what most likely come of all this. The tories have won no matter what, they have raised a huge issue and brought a whole lot of focus to something that was totally accepted into the culture and became a way of life for Canadians, pay your taxes and fill out the census. Two things we all once figured we had to do.

    Now the whole notion has been raise and the specter of privacy has captured the “victom”. Now we could see the infrastructure of trust that Statcan relied on be destroyed. It was such a long build up and now like a lightning bolt, it has been jolted.

    Not sure if the tories were actually smart enough to plan all that out, but when it comes to deception, they are the masters, so I am sure they real;izewd given their methods that there would be a huge uproar in the media and in many ways, given the loudness, proponents could actually have played right into the hands of Harper and his quest to destroy Statcan.

    Some might suggest this is too much to plan out, regardless of what was planned, a quite undesirable outcome has developed. Harper could actually reinstate the mandatory status and save face, but the damage has been done now. It will take a concerted effort of respondent consoling and reassurance to get the kind of response needed.

    (of course this could all be upside down and all this media attention will be a good thing for the census as people will realize how much planners use this and make a point of responding.)


    (maybe nobody is paying attention and despite all the media garnered, their will simply be no change as most people are on vacation)

    I am sure it will be a combination of all 3 and we will need a few surveys to assess the Statcan perceptions with the public. (or I could be like Harper and just go with what I think and act accordingly.)


  • If the government and agencies would like useful statistics to use for policy making, I’m all for that. However, a person’s name is attached to all that information, and I find that utterly invasive. That’s the issue: the government doesn’t need that info personally identified. Collect the name with a minimal amount of info if required, and collect the other useful info separately without a name attached. Simple.

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