The Medium (Form) is the Message

Since I last posted something on the Census here (August 1! Time flies!), every passing day has advanced the census story with dizzying speed. I’ve said it before: this story has more legs than a bucket of chicken.

Here are the top notes of the last 10 days, ending in a fascinating and uniquely Canadian lesson in politics. It is neither the short nor long form of the census questionnaire that has taken this story to a new level. It is, rather, the newly elongated short form….the medium form.

August 3 – Parallel Universe Logic Stockwell Day articulates the first rift valley in Government logic on the census [mandatory short form good, mandatory long form bad, but mandatory anything requires penalties for non-compliance – jail or fines – to which idea the Harper team has developed a sudden and nasty rash] and riffs on the rise in unreported crime statistics [‘nuff said].

August 4 – If you can’t stop it, kill it. Treasury Board President Stockwell Day muses openly about scrapping a long-form questionnaire altogether, and speaks of other ways to collect and integrate pre-existing [administrative] data, which is specific to individual histories.  There is no reference to privacy issues.

August 5 – Know Thy Enemy. Industry Minister Tony Clement (responsible for Statistics Canada) states critics of the census decision are ticked off because it’s the end of a “free ride” for their data needs. “They got good, quality data and the government of Canada was the heavy. We were the ones who were coercing Canadians on behalf of these private businesses, or other social institutions, or other governments and provinces, for this data. We were the ones threatening Canadians with jail times or with large fines.”

August 5 – Know Thy Enemy, Part II. La Fédération des communautés francophones et acadiennes du Canada files for an injuction to stop the distribution of the long-form questionnaire as they launch two other legal actions: a charter challenge, and a suit over the Government’s violation of its own responsibilities to the French-speaking peoples of Canada under the Official Languages Act.

August 6 – Harper Emerges. The Conservative Caucus winds up their summer retreat and Harper finally speaks after a month-long absence, but refuses to take questions about the census.

Also August 6 – No Provincial Fix. The Council of the Federation ( the premiers of the provinces and territories) end their annual meeting without a united front on the census issue, which some commentators note falls along ideological lines. Ed Stelmach of Alberta and Gordon Campbell of BC are OK with the feds doing what they want, though they don’t necessarily want to have the provinces pick up the slack. In contrast, Cities of Calgary, Edmonton, and Red Deer in Alberta and the Cities of Victoria, Metro Vancouver, North Vancouver, Burnaby, Abbotsford, Kelowna, Kitimat, as well as various districts in B.C. are dead against the move away from a national mandatory census.

August 7 – From the Department of Ouch. The redoubtable Sylvia Ostry slams the Government over its census decision. It means something when yet another former Chief Statistician, former head of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and key senior bureaucrat advising the Conservatives during the free trade fights calls the decision “shocking” and “ridiculous”.

August 9 – The Train Leaves the Station. The new voluntary long-form questionnaire that replaces the mandatory long-form census questionnaire, the National Household Survey, goes to the printer. The impression given is that the deed is done, the census decision is irreversible. It is not. The NHS has almost all the same questions as the 2006 Census long form questionnaire, with the exception of those dealing with unpaid/household work. Only 33% of the nation’s households (not people) will receive it. They will also receive, along with the other 67% of Canadian households, a mandatory short-form questionnaire, which enumerates our population and provides the most basic demographic and geographic information. There are lots of ways to communicate what is to be done with both forms when the time comes.

August 9 – Harper Doth Speak. Breaking his 35-day streak of silence since the census volcano erupted, Harper finally speaks, reinforcing but one central idea from the Conservative message box: that governments should not threaten and jail citizens for non-compliance with the Statistics Act, i.e. not filling out a census form. [“I know some people think the appropriate way to deal with that is through prosecuting those individuals with fines and jail terms,” said Mr. Harper. “This government will not do that. In this day and age, that is not the appropriate way to get the public’s co-operation.”] The biggest Mack Truck of Policy Implementation proceedeth.

August 10 – Worth Repeating. The Conservatives provide correspondence leading to the decision on the census between Statistics Canada, Industry Canada, the Minister’s Office, PCO, PMO, and Cabinet, as requested by members of the Industry Committee at the July 27 meeting. They break with tradition (what else is new) by releasing it to the press before giving the materials to the Clerk of the Committee. (This protocol is in place so everything can be translated and circulated to all members of the committee in both official languages before it is discussed.) Much is redacted/blacked out, but a revealing peak at how Cabinet works is included.

August 11 – Legal Pressures. The Federal Court fast-tracks the FCFA charter challenge, rejecting arguments by the Government’s lawyers that they wouldn’t have time to marshall their case by mid-September.

Aug 11 – Dodging the Bullet. Within hours the Harper Conservatives add two more questions on language to the mandatory short form census questionnaire that were originally on the long-form questionnaire. This may render the court challenges by FCFA moot .  (It depends on what interpretation of the Charter they might have been aiming for, and if these data fulfill the requirements of the Official Languages Act). If so, there will be no court showdown in mid September. The Harper Conservatives announce at the same time they will table legislation in the fall session to eliminate jail sentences for non-compliance with the mandatory requirement to fill in Census questionnaires.

Clement has suggested that the new Chief Statistician at Statistics Canada has shown the way forward. (Hint: it’s the same as the advice from the “old” Chief Statistician – if you want to be able to rely on it for official purposes, the data collection has to be mandatory, i.e. counting everybody, not just those who feel like answering)

As the short-form questionnaire starts starts getting longer, a wag in my circles has asked: Does this make the short form the medium form?

And of course that leads to a classic Canadian conclusion – the medium [form] is the message.

Indeed the message is that the Government of Canada has legal obligations to its citizens, a whole raft of them that depend on knowing who and where their citizens are, and what kinds of circumstances they face in their daily household and working lives.

Here’s the list of Federal Legislative Census Requirements listed in the first appendix to the undated memorandum to the Cabinet on the census issue provided by the Harper team, in response to the request for relevant correspondence by the members of the Industry Committee. These are all the ways in which the federal government requires census information to carry out its statutory obligations to the people, subsidiary level governments and institutions of Canada.



Canada Mortgage and Housing

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation Act

National Housing Act

Canada Revenue Agency

Income Tax Act

Citizenship and Immigration Canada

Canadian Multiculturalism Act

Citizenship Act

Department of Justice

Youth Criminal Justice Act

Canadian Human Rights Act

Elections Canada

Canada Elections Act

Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act

Finance Canada

Funding for Diagnostic and Medical Equipment Act

Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Resources Accord Implementation Act

Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador Additional Fiscal Equalization Offset Payments Act (2005)

Budget Implementation Act 2007

Budget Implementation Act 2009

Federal-provincial Fiscal Arrangements Act

Bank Act

Canada-Newfoundland Atlantic Accord Implementation Act

Health Canada

Canada Health Act

Food and Drug Act

Human Resources and Skills Development Canada

Canada Pension Plan Act

Old Age Security Act

Canada Student Loans Act

Canada Student Financial Assistance Act

Employment Equity Act

Canada Pension Plan Investment Board Act

Employment Insurance Act

Indian and Northern Affairs Canada

Indian Act

Industry Canada

Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act

Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Act

Patrimoine Canadian Heritage

Official Languages Act

Canada Council for the Arts Act

Public Works and Government Services Canada

Payments in Lieu of Taxes Act

Transport Canada

Railway Relocation and Crossing Act

Canada Transportation Act

Veterans Affairs

War Veterans Allowance Act

The francophone group launched its injunction based on its court challenges to the Canadian Charter (minority rights) and the Official Languages Act (particular articles protecting the French language).

Perhaps the coming days will see more court challenges launched in defence of both minority rights and the statutory provision of programs, services and protections.

Whether Aboriginal populations or seniors, the unemployed or veterans, students or immigrants, the poor or the disabled, there are plenty of other groups who rely on the info from the long-form questionnaire to insure their statutory rights are met. And answers from a 20% sample of Canadian households need to be mandatory if governments dedicated to meeting their legal obligations and a public dedicated to holding them accountable to that end can do their jobs properly. Such information is the only counterweight we’ve got to the natural drift of governments serving primarily in the interests of those who have never had a problem getting their interests served.

Neither the short form nor the long form, the story behind the “medium” form is, indeed, the message: It’s the democracy, stupid.


  • Nice to see that you’re breaking cover from “it’s all about the reliability of the statistics” to “it’s all about the ability of the rent-seeking client groups to get what they want”. Kudos for honesty!

  • Armine Yalnizyan

    Dear rcp
    “rent seeking clients”
    you’re kidding, right?

  • I hope some groups come out with charter challenges, anybody want to lead one? Isn’t there also a couple on labour as well? Something to do with collective agreements and monitoring? Or how about the EI fund, Is there not some ties to the EI fund and projections for assessing regional unemployment rates, this would be effected by the unreliable benchmarking that the census provides for the LFS.

    Great work Armine.

  • Dear Armine:

    Why would I be kidding? Your post made it clear that it’s all about the money.

  • Ignore the crp, Armine. (and yes, it is about money, like setting EI rates, & old age pensions and so on, but it’s about the gov’t meeting it’s legislative responsibilities, which needs the accurate Census data that those Acts are explicitly indexed to).

    Thanks for extracting (and possibly manually typing?) those Acts, which I’ve also been publicizing in various fora, similarly urging other parties to launch similar legislative reviews & injunctions for whichever Acts need the long form data more than every 10 years.

  • p.s., I supplemented your original list of cancelled (or scaled-back) surveys & informational products this hostile-to-useful-&-progressive-evidence Gov’t has axed, c/o Tracey, at:

    and you got a friendly & more informative editorial about it by the To. Star’s Carol Goar last week:–goar-separating-fact-from-myth-in-the-census-saga

  • RCP,

    It is only rent seeking if you receive more than you pay in taxes. Without quality stats you will never be able to ride your rent seeking hobby-horse because you will not be able to provide any reliable evidence on rent seeking.

    More seriously your description of Francophones and Aboriginals as rent seekers reveals a high level of ignorance on your part (which is not meant as an insult; there is after all a difference between being stupid and being ignorant).

  • Armine Yalnizyan

    Two clarifications:
    Though still in the planning stages according to Statistics Canada, the census (the short form) will be distributed to all households in the second week of May. May 10 is the reference date. It will be distributed in some areas by mail, and other areas will be canvassed.
    The current plan is to start delivery of the long form/National Household Survey in the first week of July.
    Second point is that the FCFA is proceeding with its court challenges, despite the addition of the two questions to the short form census (asked of 100% of households). So mid September will be an interesting time.

  • I see a real problem with those dates. Essentially the long form will not enjoy the same follow-up and efforts to ensure the completion that the short form will.

    Or at least timing wise, most of the census takers and crews employed will be laid off by that time. Unless they plan on bringing them back in late july or August.

  • Armine Yalnizyan

    Paul T. The person at StatCan indicated that the same folks hired for dissemination of short form will be kept to do long form. He also said that it was still in the planning stages, and things were changing. (We noticed.) However the person repeated more than once that the initial plans had not as yet changed.

  • @ Travis

    Thanks for enlightening me!

    First, by your definition, 75% of Canadians are rent-seekers – sad but true.

    Second, I guess you haven’t been following Quebec politics for the last 20 years or so, since the Bloq actually exemplifies rent-seeking.

  • RCP,

    Please define the parameters of your argument. How does the bloc exemplify rent seeking when its positions are constitutionally enshrined going back to 1763 befog there was even a Canadian state to rent seek from?

  • @ Travis;

    The purpose of the Bloc is to extort money from ROC. You knew that already, I’m sure.

  • The Bloc is not rent seeking it is playing the constitutional game as established in 1867. I might add that the bloc is no more aggressive vis-a-vis the federal government and the federation than the conservatives in Alberta (and certainly less successful). The point is 1867 reflects the facts on the ground at that time and the minimal conditions necessary to get Quebec join in the Federation. One of the other facts on the ground at that time was that the Francophones understood the proposed new country to be a bi-national federation. English Canada (such as it was at the time) needed Quebec in order to be able to present the federation as a serious bloc to US expansion.

    Reducing francophones to just another linguistic minority and viewing them as rent seekers when they press their constitutional rights as enshrined in 1867 is just the attitude prevalent in the ROC that the Bloc thrives on. Given that reality, no wonder the bloc and sovereigntists use every legal tool at their disposal.

  • @ Travis:

    You are (purposefully?) missing the point.

    Armine called francophones a minority, and urged them to support the long-form census to shore up their political position. Realistically, they are a minority in Canada at this point.

    If you think that the Bloc is not rent-seeking then you might ask yourself how long the Quebec social model would last without subsidies extorted from the ROC.

    If you want to claim that the long-form census is important because of the purity of a mandatory sample, fine, go ahead. But backing that position up with a political call to arms to get goodies from the Feds totally undercuts it.

  • RCP,

    Actually you are missing the point. Take the case of Aboriginals. The fiduciary obligations flowing from treaty rights and non-extinguished sovereign rights (as is the case with most aboriginal groups in B.C.) are not payments to enumerated charter groups. They are constitutional obligations which flow in the case of aboriginals from 1763 and as recognized in 1867.

    So for example S. 15(2) of the Charter is not really of relevance here in both senses of subsection 2. S. 15(2) basically says that the government can violate S. 15 if it for the amelioration of the situation of a historically disadvantaged group. Implied is that it anticipates that if such a group could be shown to enjoy equal status with the majority then such legislation would become a violation of S. 15.

    Imagine Aboriginals were able to achieve socio-economic parity in 10 years. The Canadian state would still have to meet its treaty obligations even if that meant that Aboriginals were on average better educated, had higher median incomes and lived longer than the median Canadian (what a conjecture).

    Maybe this too complex so let me translate it all into very basic terms. Lets call treaty payments rents and aboriginal Canadians land-lords. Aboriginal treaties can be treated as a lease agreement with an infinite time duration where the value of lease is variable. Aboriginals can’t arbitrarily set the lease rate because they do not enjoy the monopoly on the legitimate exercise of force (the definition of a state) but nor can the state abrogate its contractual obligations with Aboriginals and still remain within the rule of liberal law.

    But whatever the power dynamics between the CDN state and aboriginal groups we not characterize this as a minority engaging in political rent seeking any more than we would characterize a landlord demanding a lease payment every month.

    In fact an argument can be made that the Canadian state is rent seeking when it uses its monopoly on the exclusive exercise of legitimate force in-order to minimize its lease payments to Aboriginals.

    But however you characterize the complex relationship between Aboriginals and the Canadian state it is not one of rent seeking.

    Francophones are a minority but they are also one of the founding nations of the federation which gives them a status different from all other minorities and from all other provinces. Go read the BNA 1867 if you doubt that. And those obligations hold regardless of whether or not French speaking Canadians residing in Quebec are a majority or a minority and regardless of whether they are worse or better off than the average english speaking Canadian.

    As for the Quebec social model do not believe the hype. The health care system is completely overwhelmed; 7$ a day day care does not really exist as a universal program because there are far too few spots (it is more like 30$ a day daycare); electricity rates have been liberalized; tuition will be deregulated within the next two years; k-12 education is of questionable quality and there is general agreement between the two major parties that regressive taxation is the future. True union density is higher and the word “union” is not totally a dirty word in the political discourse. That too is changing.

    If there was a Quebec social model it now exists pretty much in name only and only demands that you pick between brown sauce and BBQ sauce on your poutine. Sure Quebecois social democrats and intellectuals will talk endlessly of the Quebec social model but it really refers to a political project that is dead in the water but still resonates with some sections the public. Sure everybody in the PQ will well-up with tears at the mention of Levesque but none of those in control of the party today would ever let Levesque govern the party. Sovereignty and social democracy are no longer fused as the main political tendency in Quebec. As such there is no agreement on what the Quebec social model is or ought to be.

    For a glib look at the future of the supposed Quebec social model rent Denys Aracand’s, “L’Âge des ténèbres.”

    A politically correct, technocratic, capitalist dystopia. Sounds a lot like English Canada to me.

    I would move to why the description of women and minorities as political rent seekers is equally disingenuous but for that you will have to pay tuition and suffer through my bad French as the language of instruction at Laval is French.

  • Thank-you for your diligence. I keep hoping that there will be a way to stop this nonsense and re-instate the long form census, but I fear it is too late. The census is tarnished and may prove to have the lowest response rate in history come 2011. Through their lack of knowledge, Mr Harper and Clements have managed to send the message that the census is intrusive, unnecessary and untrustworthy. This is ironic considering the amount of money the US (and other countries) have put into public relations to increase census knowledge and participation rates. It will be very expensive in the future to undo this propaganda.

  • Travis said:

    It is only rent seeking if you receive more than you pay in taxes.

    Armine said:

    Whether Aboriginal populations or seniors, the unemployed or veterans, students or immigrants, the poor or the disabled, there are plenty of other groups who rely on the info from the long-form questionnaire to insure their statutory rights are met.

    Neither the short form nor the long form, the story behind the “medium” form is, indeed, the message: It’s the democracy, stupid.

    I say:

    I stand by my comments. Much as the debate has been posed in seemingly-objective terms (“good data needed for good policy”), it is in fact political, and the mask has come off. Those who think they might benefit most from redistributive policies are amazingly enough those who are most vociferous.

  • Armine Yalnizyan

    rcp you are correct.

    Data are not political, but the uses to which they can be put are…. on both sides of the spectrum.

    Data are marshalled even by those who hate the methods of collecting it – see the Fraser Institute – to make their case and ply their trade which, in the case of the Fraser Institute is an unwavering argument for shrinking the size of the state and consequently the “rents” available to taxpayers.

    [BTW rents do not have to be greater than taxes paid to be rents. For example, unless you live in the woods, you get rents from your taxes in the form of infrastructure. Actually, even if you live in the woods you benefit from a defence system, a justice system, roads, hospitals, schools, and the people and maintenance that keeps these things on guard for you. What you are defining as rents are the stream of services (instead of incomes) we get for our taxes. Some people do indeed get more out of than they pay into the tax system, but some people get paid more than their value-added in the market system. Human societies as far back as hunter gatherers long ago determined there were efficiencies that maximized overall output by redistributing resources.]

    It is, in fact, not just the “rent-seekers” — as you so evocatively name those who are not already holding the reins of decision-making in this country — who have a stake in access to data that describe who we are.

    It is also businesses that wish to corner or expand a market; and governments that need to meet their legal obligations, hopefully on the basis of evidence.

    True, businesses can make plans without evidence, or with less than bullet-proof evidence. It’s their prerogative to invest how they wish.

    For governments, sometimes evidence provides them a basis on which to cut supports, sometimes evidence to expand supports. Evidence can also be ignored. But without a basis of facts governments can oversteer without knowing it, leading to costly waste for taxpayers. That is a fundamental problem for people across the political spectrum, both those who want to spend more in some areas, and those who want to spend less in all areas.

    The reason why this story stands at the intersection between information and democracy is that, in a true democracy, both opinions about a) how to structure society (including the role of state, the role of the market, the role of community, the role of the famliy/individual) and b) how to read past trends to prepare for future challenges rely on information.

    In an Age of Reason the respective cases are made and some synthesis of views is usually found based on an artful balance between evidence and persuasion.

    That is, indeed, political. But the data are not. At least not yet. And that is what we are trying to prevent.

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