Stephen Harper’s Gamble

Dr. Bill Stanbury — a regular contributor to the Hill Times, professor emeritus at UBC, economist and self-described as centre-right — has urged me to work with him to compile a list of every organization who has taken a public stand on opposing the government’s decision to ax the census long-form questionnaire, and replace it with a voluntary household survey.

Early on Tuesday July 20, putting our heads together produced a list of 55 organizations or individual subsidiary levels of government. We will add to this list in the next 24 hours.

It occurred to me, in the interests of fair play, we should start collecting the list of organizations that support the goverrment’s decision too.

Alas, the list is, relatively-speaking, short.

Like one.

The Fraser Institute.

Plus some columnists.

Like two.

Lorne Gunther and Ezra Levant, both writing for the National Post.

I’d say “natch”, but one can’t write the Post off, because they have also published two strong (and one very funny) piece from Kelly McParland (online, not print edition) and Tasha Kheirridin (in print) against the government’s position there too.

I don’t think a single national or local newspaper editorial has supported the position, but I could be wrong. Post a comment, let us all know.

The government is gambling on very long odds that they can parlay this into a Tea-Party like mutiny of People vs. The State.

This is possible in the U.S., because there the context of dissent is rooted, today and historically, in an anti-government stance. In Canada, Stephen Harper and his cabinet are the most vocal promoters of this way of thinking, as I’ve mentioned here before.

If you search “census” and “privacy” on the same search line on youtube, you can see where Harper’s team is getting its talking points from. Maybe our government is being advised by ex Bush-government operatchiks, or more slick consultants from the class of perma-mad right-wing nutbars who seem to find such fertile ground in the Land of Freedom.

Harper’s gamble may pay off, but they have disaffected parts of their own core base, including generation-long Conservatives who would never vote Liberal, NDP, Bloc or Green.

So to place all your bargaining chips on the odds that you can create a counter-groundswell seems a tad optimistic.

After all, organizing libertarians and anarchists is a contradiction in terms.

But then again, maybe their “Mavericks of the World Unite” campaign will piss off the mavericks too, and we can put this story to bed.


  • Heh I assume “organizing libertarians and anarchists is a contradiction in terms” is some sort of tongue-in-cheek comment, although I don’t quite get its relevance. This equation of Harper’s attacks on democratic government with “anarchy” or “anarchists” is pretty silly coming from a left/progressive site.

  • You have done an awesome job Armine and I must say I am surprised at the loosely formed coalitions to fight against this. I do know the Sun in several cities have been publishing some nasty bits in support of trashing the mandatory long form, but I am not sure such sources as the Sun “newspaper” qualify as newspapers.

    However, as you stated, and I do agree with you, Harper is effectively trying to somehow form a tea party like response to this whole affair.
    If that is the case then entertainment type news sources, such as the Sun media do become potent weapons.

    In the end, I will repeat myself, this has done a lot of damage to Statcan. I know from my former days that inside the barn, a whole lot of people spend their lifetimes trying to meet the goals of Statcan and are a very committed bunch of people. (not all wear pointy hats either, although there is a bit of a trend!?) They take pride in their efforts to measure many national assets, trends and measures of the socio-economic fabric. And this has hurt the entire organization, not just in terms of losing one of their most reliable sources of data that is integrated into the functionality of many areas of Statcan but also in terms of professionalism and the further loss of public trust in the whole democratic process of being counted. It is but trust and followups that drive survey response (and no jail time has never been used as a means to ask people to fill the survey out. It merely pointed out that the survey is mandatory)

    So in many ways the gamble that you suggest comes with a huge cost, as stated, the harm being done to the infrastructure of measurement, which includes public trust and willingness to participate, takes so so long to seed and cultivate. HArper’s action are seriously degrading the abilities of Statcan in meeting these objectives. Even with mandatory notions, it is difficult to foster the multitude and types of social relations that a national statistical agency must entrench and be guardians over to ensure they fulfill their mandates.

    So it is a huge matter for this assault on democracy as the tories and their ideological response have disrupted and destroyed the flow and trust of people by not understanding the necessity and the delicacy of quantification.

    Anyway, it is quite obvious that having this public debate in the midst of the world economy coming apart again, is not what I would have called governing.

    Sad really, but maybe these are the costs Canadians must incur to finally expose who is actually managing Mr. Harper these days, it surely is not the center.

    I think if anything, Canadians must seriously think about who actually is calling for this and why and be exposed to what the real costs of such decisions could be.


  • There’s an editorial opposing the long form by Gordon Clark of the Vancouver Province. It is available at

  • The Editorial Page editor at the Province wrote something making fun of critics of the move:

  • I don’t think this Conservative census move is solely ideological (i.e. right to privacy) of nature. I’m wondering the following: what is it that the Harper Government wants to hide the most?

    Any ideas?

  • I would go further than saying this is an assault on democracy, which it is. It is also an assault on governance, which I believe it is intended to be.
    Almost every public enterprise in the country relies heavily on census data to be able to function effectively.
    But for a government that believes there are only two functions: military and jails this policy seems if not convenient at least located in a gigantic blind spot where most of the public interest lies.
    Of course many have correctly underlined that there is no recovery form this as it will leave a permanent hole in the statistical record that even upon reversal of this policy in future years can never be filled.
    Sean Fordyce

  • It is painfully obvious that Harper and Co. would rather not have “too much information” on issues that affect ordinary Canadians. The less information available the less inclined these hillbillies are to create social legislation that Canadians have come to appreciate. Another attempt by the Cons to systematically and deliberately dismantle our government programs.

  • Armine Yalnizyan

    Update: There are more people who support the Government move.

    Pierre Lemieux, a columnist with the Western Standard, an online newspaper based in Calgary, which features, among other things, a daily newsfeature called “The Shotgun Blog” and section called “War on Fun”. Scanning the paper may be your quickest guide to current libertarian thinking and rhetoric. Pierre is economist in the Department of Management Sciences of the Université du Québec en Outaouais and a research fellow at the Independent Institute, Oakland, CA.

    Also the Sun chain of newspapers, newly rebranded as even harder right, have thus far been the only paper to publish an editorial that supports the government’s decision.

    Warren Kinsella, spin-doctor for many federal Liberal campaigns, has also self-identified as census refusnik in a vlog on The Mark.

    Finally, and importantly, there is Sandra Finley, the Saskatoon activist who went to court in 2006 for not filling out her census form. But she is never showcased by the government as a case in point, because her objection regarding privacy lies elsewhere. She won’t provide information because the government contracts some service needs related to the Census to defence giant Lockheed-Martin. The government’s decision doesn’t change anything about that arrangement. In a July 7 story filed by Jennifer Ditchburn of Canadian Press she says “As far as I’m concerned, my objection to them contracting out to Lockheed Martin is stronger than ever based on what I’ve learned over seven years.”

    It’s been too busy to post about this angle of the story (which has more legs than a bucket of chicken!) but I will.

  • In the midst of this mornings Statcans’ cancellation of its internal town hall meeting, I do think Mr. Sheikh should do the right thing and resign. However, so should Mr. Clement- and with that I also think given where all this originated form, Mr. Harper should resign. However, he will probably do what he is famous for, prorogue parliament.

    (as soon as it gets back in session).

    With the cancellation, I cannot see what else Mr Sheikh is thinking about but handing in his resignation. This will work against the tories, so potentially this is not what is occurring,a s Munir is a lap dog from the old days- but he might surprise me.

    How can Mr. Clement say that Statcan is not arms length, he truly is a Moron and has no understanding of how government is supposed to work, at least one in a democracy. Of course Statcan is independent, it has the Statistics act to prove it, unlike any other department, the Chief Statistician has got to be independent, otherwise how can they be credible?

    Mr. Clement obviously has not been reading his speaking notes again- who is his handler, the should resign as well.

    Banana republic, here we come.

    pt- no soup today!

  • I just wanted to repeat here, for Mr. Clement to come out in the media today and state that Statistics Canada is not at arms length is such a incompetent comment that he must be removed. How can a minister involved with an organization that has the Statistics Act under its responsibility not know enough to say in public, that Statistics Canada calls its own shots. It is the fundamental law that makes Statcan unique and has made it the international leader amongst the national statistical agencies. the Statistics act could theoretically over rule the changes being proposed by Mr. Clement, and his belief that he is beyond the respect and structure that the Statistics act brings to the institution of measurement, is what is ultimately at stake here.

    So instead of Mr. Sheikh resigning we need Mr. Clement to resign and admit that the changes being introduced are not what will empower the Statistical Agency to get its job done.


  • Armine Yalnizyan

    So Munir is mulling about resigning publicly to the G&M.

    Of course what he’s “mulling over” is how to resign (you don’t cancel a town hall, and announce you’re thinking about resigning, then go back to work with a grin on your face)

    This is the denouement of the story arc, the diffusion of the white hot situation created by Stephen Harper’s unwinnable game plan.

    So does Munir fall on his sword and save the regime (and live with public humiliation for the rest of his career) or does he go out swinging?

    Stay tuned.

    Positively Shakespearean this thing, A Midsummer Night’s Nightmare

  • He resigned! Well Salty I guess you were wrong and Armine, you were right.

    Wow, only in Canada can you have this much political drama over a census. However, it truly is the definition of democracy that Harper and the hard core reformers are tugging away at here. So I will say that Munir is now a hero for not taking it anymore and doing the right thing.

    The globe keeps suggesting they do not understand what Munir was upset about this morning, well I tell you this, any minister of industry that does not understand what the Statistics Act truly means within a democracy, and we are talking a minister here and a Prime Minister, truly does not understand this country or what makes it go. When he states that he is in control of Statistics Canada, that is a very slippery slope he starts walking on that can destroy an arms length institution like statcan.

    People do want to be counted, and heard, they do believe in a system where planners take data and try and attempt to make policy based on real needs and trends, not imagined trends. People do believe that at the heart of government there is something guiding them aside from blatant ideology. Fact freedom day, lasts 365 days a year in Clements head.

    I know that Felligi suggested he would have resigned, but I am impressed with Munir.

    So now this really puts the heat on Clement to make it clear to Canadians, exactly why the plan to scrap the census mandatory status, is something that Canadians want and somehow those that use the data can rely upon to make informed decisions with the respect and expertise of the leading statistical agency in the world.

    Truly, I would agree with Salty that Mr. Clement not understanding the specifics between the minister and the Statistics Act would warrant a resignation from the minister.

    Why is it the Statistics Act was put in place- to keep deciions such as these at arms length. I think we need tyo revisit exactly how vulnerable the functioning of Statistics Canada is to the whims and fancy of the party in power. I also think top balance this out, we need to have specific term limits put on the Chief Statistician appointed by some kind of independent organization.

    A true democracy relies on reliable accurate and robust statistical data, and this whole affair has proven that our democratic institutions are quite vulnerable and need to be rethought.


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