Critique of CensusLiving between the linesNotesObservations

2011Census’ Theatre of Fears

Do you know someone who completed the census out of fear of fine or imprisonment? Or someone having not completed it who feared it? No? Then ask: What does Harper government fear?

Decision to transform the mandatory census’ long-form into a voluntary survey has led to genuine alarms. Scientists, business communities and local administrations dread deterioration of the data necessary to their work and decisions. Organizations acting for linguistics minorities, women and other communities worry about losing sound figures on which they base their advocacy.

However, accusations that Conservatives try to undermine the gathering of information that might contradict their policies are not plausible. It would be a dangerous game: skewed results from botched census could as much disserve them. It does not fit with a 50% multiplication of long questionnaires (from 3 to 4.5 million at additional cost of $30 million) plus a participation promotion campaign. Moreover, this government’s punctilious programs’ reviews and, especially, this Conservative Party’s wedge politics strategies require very reliable statistical benchmarks.

Fear(s) of the electorate

After 2006 census, only one person was prosecuted. Yet, more than 3% of households did not participate. Yet among those who participated, thousands omitted a question or responded oddly (giving “Jedi” (Star Wars) as religion or “Human” as ethnic origin). All without being bothered. This is because Canadians remain one of the most compliant populations. Thus in recent history, the rare Canadians prosecuted were individuals who openly engaged in civil disobedience. That is precisely what Conservatives would fear.

Last April US census was subjected for months to impassioned calls for civil disobedience from right wing groups and Tea Partiers as well as Latin American organizations, all distrustful of State. Calls endorsed or echoed by religious congregations, media celebrities (Fox) and even elected officials, like Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. The controversies seem to have produced opposing effects. On one hand, open refusals to participate increased notably and attacks against enumerators (including assaults, carjackings and gun firings) tripled since last census. On the other, participation soared significantly up to 72% instead of the forecasted decrease to 64%.

In peaceful Canada, it would be embarrassing for any government to take legal action, no longer on lone nonconformists, but on several characters representing active political opinion streams. But it would particularly be a calamity for a Conservative minority government to confront champions of electorate’s segments it courts and who often master the use of social media.

This government solution: make voluntary the census’ version which is the most intrusive from that State reviled in some political crowds or worrisome among vulnerable communities or those originating from authoritarian countries. The form with the most sensitive questions (religion, ethnicity, same-sex couples, income). Once it becomes voluntary, no more civil disobedience is possible.

Cleverly conducted among an already compliant population, such plan could produce excellent results. This would not be the most daring change in census history, like the 1971 one that successfully replaced interviews by enumerators with questionnaires self-administered by citizens themselves.

Still, this solution seems leaded because decided without consultation with the numerous stakeholders (contrary to now well established custom). This by a government which decisions often appear based more on ideology than facts and which, furthermore, is now suspected of trimming down the public analysis role of Statistics Canada (i.e.: without undermining production and quality of data, seeking to strengthen its control over interpretation). Apparently, such partisan politicization of census should be a recipe for the very confidence crisis that government wants to avoid.

But opposition parties’ eagerness to pledge for the restoration of the mandatory long-form might help Conservatives to rally the circles they feared to clash with. Equally ironical, the public controversy could also help educate population on the census and the importance of participation.

So Harper’s Conservatives seem to adeptly play the wedge game again, working on powerful political levers: fears. Imminent publication of long form’s wording and still to come details of their participation promotion plan will offer them ample opportunities to fine-tune strategy.

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