Flanagan on the Census
Tom Flanagan, Steven Harper’s guru in younger days and a political sherpa who helped guide the rise of the New Right in Canada in its early days, has put in his two cents on the census affair.
It is a thoughtful piece, if somewhat predictable. But it leans on two important facts in an erroneous way. In both cases, my guess is that he is simply not aware of the facts, rather than making an outright attempt to be misleading.
First, he suggests that the time is long overdue for census information collecting to move firmly into the 21st century.
He probably does not know that the long form census questionnaire in 2006 was available on-line, as will be the National Household Survey in 2011. After all, only 20% of households would have had the option to answer these questions, in any form at all, last time round. Many households, though, still prefer to fill out forms in hard-copy; and many will still need face-to-face help, as we have heard in witness testimony at the Industry Committee hearing on July 27.
The considerable technological security/privacy issues related to on-line surveys that must, by law, provide full confidentiality were resolved in partnership between Statistics Canada and Lockheed Martin in the run-up to the 2006 Census. Lockheed Martin has been retained for a smaller role this time around.
The involvement of Lockheed Martin, the worldâ€™s biggest defence contractor, was the primary reason people in Canada (and the U.S., which followed a similar route) refused to fill in the census questionnaire.
Why was Lockheed Martin was chosen, out of all the private contractors available? The answer deserves and requires more time than I have today; but the point is that census refusniks in Canada did not fail to respond, as the government claims, because they found the state coercive, or the census questions intrusive. They refused because they thought Lockheed Martin was going to be privy to their information. The Lockheed Martin name is undoubtedly a red flag to some, and reasonably so. Turns out it is also a red herring. Statistics Canada takes its duties around confidentiality very seriously. Indeed, it’s known to be a bit of a fetish around the agency. (As fetishes go, this one makes me a little more at ease than not!)
Secondly, Dr. Flanagan raises an important issue regarding response rates among First Nations peoples. He notes, rather derisively, that the response rate is rising, and dramatically so. He does not provide any context or history behind this trend.
It is in large part due to the patient and ongoing process of mutual listening that has been taking place among many (but not all) First Nations, Inuit and MÃ©tis communities and Statistics Canada. There has been long-standing antipathy between some First Nations communities and the government, with the census issue falling into a broader “get off my lawn” positioning. But there is also a growing understanding that these data can be put to good use, both within these communities and with others. Indeed, there is precious little systematically collected information other than that derived from the census long form questionnaire about these communities.
The fact that the census is still developing as a reliable source of long-term data for and about these communities is a good sign, not a weakness. Both the process of census-taking and the nature of the questions have changed over time, for these Canadians and for the rest of us. (I provided a link to the fascinating history of the Canadian census in an earlier post.) The iterative nature of this process with First Nations, Inuit and MÃ©tis people is still a slow and evolving dance. What everyone involved understands is that, without this information, we have no comparable data between our first nations peoples and the rest of Canadian society; and it is critically important to gauge the progress of all Canadians, particularly those who have been given such a raw deal for so long.