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An open letter to Statistics Canada

Current Events, Friends-Romans-Countrymen, Math and Science, Politics and Activism

To whom it may concern;

As a citizen of Canada I have to express concern over your steadfast refusal to acknowledge the valid concerns of the people who elect the government and through their taxes pay your salaries. Although the current government is taking a ham-handed approach to people’s concern about the long form of the census, rest assured that a good many people do, in fact, object to this intrusive form. Although I cannot speak for the masses, I can speak for myself, and I am confident that my opinion is shared by many people.

There are two primary problems with the long form census:

  1. It demands redundant information that is, or should be, available within the government because it is already provided.
  2. It asks for information that is wholly inappropriate in for a government to ask for, doubly so when such information is also tied to the identity of the person providing it. Questions on the long form census could be used in unspeakable ways. Just because we haven’t (as far as I know) experienced such an abuse yet doesn’t mean it won’t happen tomorrow, or next year.

To the first point, information about immigrant status, status as an Aboriginal Canadian, income, and the bulk of the employment information is already provided to various government departments. Since the government already has this information it is poor information management practice to duplicate it somewhere else. Doing so pretty much always means that one or both copies will always be inaccurate. If there is a policy or other bureaucracy issue that prevents the sharing of this kind of information with StatsCan, then the proper thing to do is fix the policy or bureaucracy, not threaten the public with a $1000 fine for not filling out the form. This should be obvious to the highly educated professionals at StatsCan.

Nor is it an excuse to say “well people give better info on the census than they do to the other departments” because my response to that is “too bad”… the information that the government has is supposed to be accurate. By making that excuse (as is often the case when the issue of income information and the census is brought up) they are saying that they believe the other copy of the information that the government has is inaccurate. Instead of fixing the inaccuracy in the original collection, they opt to make a separate collection. That is just wrong.

As you will see shortly, redundancy forms a good chunk of the long form.

To the second point, the long form has, traditionally, asked a great many questions about race and religion. These are issues that are, frankly, none of the business of government. Worse, because the answers to these questions are tied to identifying information, the long form creates a potential for the worst kind of information abuse imaginable… a malicious government could use this information for such horrors as ethnic cleansing, McCarthy-style persecution of minorities, and so forth. We are fortunate that it hasn’t happened yet in Canada… that we know of. We do know that the RCMP in the 70’s were keeping files on people and that eventually they were shown to be abusing their power. That revelation led to the creation of CSIS. We have seen the USA abuse information on its citizens. The long form creates a pool of information that no government should ever have access to.

Now, if I left it at that, someone from StatsCan would come here and say “well we strip the identifying information as soon as we can.” Fine, to that I say “then why do you collect it at all?” Either you need it, in which case it’s available, somewhere; or you don’t. As a minimum, the paper files are available and the process could probably be pretty easily corrupted. It is a highly dangerous business. People are trusting the government less and less, and this kind of identifying information collection frightens people – and rightfully so.

To make it specific, I am going to go through the 2006 long form. 2006 was the first year since I’ve been an adult that I did not get a long form, and as I write this, I am looking at it for the first time. The forms are publicly available on Statistics Canada’s web site. This one came from here. Click on the pictures to see the excerpt from the form in a separate tab/window.

2006 Long form census, questions 1-5
2006 Long form census, questions 1-5

Questions 1-5 are identifying information, although questions 4 and 5 fall under the category of “none of your damn business”. For adults, that information is generally available from Canada Revenue or Elections Canada. Nevertheless, by itself it’s not a huge deal if it wasn’t attached to what follows. Question 6 (not shown) relates to other people in the house and their relationship to person 1 (shown).

2006 Long form census, questions 7 and 8.
2006 Long form census, questions 7 and 8.

There’s a couple of stupid questions. They’re stupid because there’s two “Yes” answers and thus could apply to nearly everyone at some point. At best, they’re going to give an inflated view of the number of disabled people in the country. At worst, that inflated number will be used to promote affirmative action programs based on potentially faulty information.

2006 Long form census, questions 9 to 12
2006 Long form census, questions 9 to 12

At Question 9 we start into information that is both redundant and dangerous. Birth records are available from the provinces. For landed immigrants and naturalized citizens, they provided that information when they came to Canada. The only people not included would be American tourists and illegal immigrants. Even tourists in the country need a passport now, and only the stupidest illegal immigrants would fill out the census with all that identifying information there. StatsCan need not ask ANY of those questions as the information is either available from other sources, or not feasibly available at all.

The information in this question combined with the identifying information would make a database that could be used for nefarious purposes. Someone doesn’t like Somalians? Hey, not a problem there’s a database with everyone’s name, address, and country of birth, let’s look them up! These questions are nasty, nasty business in this form.

2006 Long form census, questions 13 to 16
2006 Long form census, questions 13 to 16

The next 4 questions deal with official languages. If these weren’t attached to identifying information, I wouldn’t really have a problem with them. 16 is kind of a weird question, but there’s nothing really outside the curve here.

2006 Long form census, question 17
2006 Long form census, question 17

This is a question that is prone to abuse when connected with identifying information. Irrespective of whether or not Canada has 100 years of such information, the government has absolutely no ethical or moral imperative that requires such information to be collected with the identity of the provider. Worse, it ties in with the disgusting question 19.

2006 Long form census, questions 18, 20, and 21
2006 Long form census, questions 18, 20, and 21

These questions are redundant. Indian Affairs has all the information on how many Aboriginals there are in Canada. StatsCan should not be pestering people for this. Poor information management is what is happening there.

2006 Long form census, question 19
2006 Long form census, question 19

Question 19. The most offensive question on the form. It is patently offensive for two serious reasons:

It states right on the form that this information is going to be used to discriminate against people. That’s what “programs that promote equal opportunity” means folks. Worse, as things come into balance, the programs seem to live on – you don’t see women being taken down as disadvantaged groups in those civil service categories where they have enjoyed hiring benefit but are now near a majority or form a majority, for example. Affirmative action is discrimination. It is a solution that is worse than the problem, and StatsCan should be embarrassed for asking this question.

It uses polite terms, but this question is about as racist a question as I could imagine a government could ask, short of making the selections: cracker, chink, paki, nigger, spic, slope, etc. It arbitrarily lumps people together in categories that seem to me to be based largely on appearance or skin colour. Furthermore, this information is tied to identifying information. A government that, say, wanted to put Asian-looking people in concentration camps would find this to be a gold-mine, not that a government of Canada has ever done something like that mind you. In a progressive, free, and democratic society, the government has no valid use for this information whatsoever.

Questions 23 and 24 deal with individual mobility. I didn’t screenshot them because they’re worded similarly. In essence, have you moved in the last year or 5 years. I don’t have a problem with these questions, although again, I don’t like that they’re tied to identifying information. Still, I find it difficult to think up a plausible abuse scenario for the information in 23 and 24.

2006 Long form census, question 19
2006 Long form census, question 25

Again, question 25 is, frankly, none of the government’s business. By putting it on a form with identifying information there is a risk of terrible abuse. It’s also inaccurate. If my parents were born, say, in British Palestine, this form would have me put Israel… but that’s wrong because British Palestine isn’t Israel. So it’s nosy, dangerous and inaccurate – quite the prize for StatsCan.

Questions 26 to 32 deal with completed education. I don’t have a huge problem with it, although because it’s attached to identifying information, if we ever got into a “kill all the lawyers” sort of scenario, the form would be a lot of dangerous info waiting to be tapped by a nefarious government. Much of it is also available from other sources: the schools themselves, and from the paperwork that immigrants and naturalized citizens already fill out. Once again, StatsCan should be utilizing existing sources not making new ones.

2006 Long form census, question 33
2006 Long form census, question 33

These are questions that have been popping up from time to time. It is my understanding that the general use of this information is to make it appear that women are put upon for doing housework or raising kids. Here’s a fact folks: housework has to be done no matter who you are, and your kids are your responsibility to raise. Therefore, it is my opinion that unless you spend time volunteering to do OTHER PEOPLE’S housework for free or looking after OTHER PEOPLE’S children or parents for free, the answer should be “none.” Beyond that, the government also has no reason to tie this to indentifying information, although there is no specific abuse scenario I can think up other than to tax childless people more to pay for stay-at-home parents or something similar.

Questions 34-39 are employment related: were you employed, how much did you work, were you unemployed or self-employed and so on. Again, I see no particular issue with these questions, although they’re a bit nosy with the identifying info associated with them. I can see why a government would want to know this stuff, and can’t see a plausible way it could be abused.

Questions 40-46, 49, and 50 however, are detailed employment information that is already collected by Canada Revenue and should be extracted from there. There is no reason to ask people to provide it, as they already have provided it to the government. These questions merely waste people’s time under threat of a fine.

Question 47 asks how you get to work. Again, not a problem here. It presents a fair selection of options and there’s no obvious abuse scenario for this info. Similarly, question 48 asks what language(s) you use at work. That’s probably a fair question in this country, although I can’t help but think that the Quebec language police would love to get their claws on this info and the identifying information in order to root out those underground anglophones who evilly persist in working in English in Quebec.

Oddly enough, question 51 asks for permission to get income info (question 52) from CRA. Now, if statistical trends is what they’re after, why do they need individual permission. Why not skip the identifying part and go straight to CRA for the statistical information? Nobody’s permission would have to be asked, the info would be stored in one place, the form would be shorter and thus cheaper with less citizens pissed off. It’s a win all around. As previously noted, they could get the answers to other questions there too. It’s evident that they’ve at least thought this part way through, why not take it to its logical conclusion?

2006 Long form census, question 53
2006 Long form census, question 53

That question would simply not be necessary if the identifying information wasn’t taken in the first place. The very fact that this question is needed puts people ill at ease. It means that the personal identifying information is somehow stored and for all we know may well be associated with the other answers. This question, rightly or wrongly, scares people about the long form.

I don’t trust that all the rest of the governments for the remainder of my life will not abuse this information. It irks me that the government would keep a bunch of picky personal information such as is collected on this form and then try to claim that they can keep it secure for over 90 years, and effectively imply that in that time no government or bureaucrat will ever abuse it. Pardon me for being blunt, but that’s bullshit.

The final bit of the census long form deals with specific information about the dwelling. Since this information is available from municipalities, it should be collected from them instead of having a second copy generated by the census.

I hope that this article proves useful to everyone, but especially to StatsCan, who seem to be missing the forest for the trees on this long form issue. Yes, I agree that the government needs to collect some information and that it needs to be collected in a mandatory way. But you’re hard pressed to make a case that the government needs to collect THIS information by force and store it for most of a century. Fix the long form and people’s objections will wane, I am certain.

I do understand statistics as a basic knowledge of that branch of mathematics was a requirement in my education. Thus, I do understand how the proposed voluntary form will provide weaker data. Nevertheless, I also understand that regardless of what privileges StatsCan thinks it should enjoy, it is still in the employ of the people of Canada. If the people are telling you to change your ways, then you must change them.

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