Bill Waiser

Statistics Canada

Opt-in provision on short-form census unwise

It is encouraging to hear media reports state that the long-form census could once again become mandatory, and that the change might be made in time for the June 2016 census.

Such a step would restore public confidence in Statistics Canada and the integrity of its data collection.

But there is another outstanding census issue — this one dealing with the short-form census and the use of the informed-question question — that needs immediate attention, too.

In 2006, for the first time in Canadian history, all census participants were asked to indicate, by checking a box, whether their responses on the short form could be made public after 92 years. The form was not destroyed if respondents said no or neglected to answer the question, but access to it in its name specific format was forever prohibited.

Canadians completing the census had never been asked this “opt-in” question before 2006. Indeed, all pre-1916 Canadian censuses, with their name-specific personal information, have been made publicly available after a minimum 92-year waiting period.

But the opt-in question in 2006 and again in 2011 undermined this sensible policy with unfortunate consequences.

Only six of every 10 Canadians agreed to make their census information available to future generations. If that had been the case in the past, then much of the rich census data available today to families and researchers would be forever closed to the public.

Thankfully, it does not have to be this way.

There is a clause (2.1) in the 2005 “Act to Amend the Statistics Act” (S.C. 2005, c. 31) that requires a review of the informed-consent question “no later than two years before the taking of the third census of population (2016) … by any committee of the Senate, the House of Commons or both Houses of Parliament that may be designated or established for that purpose.”

Clause 2.2 requires a report on the matter. That deadline has unfortunately been missed. And by failing to conduct this mandatory review of the opt-in question before the taking of the 2016 census, the Canadian government and, by extension, Statistics Canada, will be in violation of the 2005 legislation.

Such a review should not be casually dismissed as an unnecessary annoyance.
Canadians need to know that the statistical integrity of the census as a source of genealogical and historical information, especially about everyday Canadians, has been forever compromised by the informed-consent question. They also need to be aware that the United States does not have an opt-in question, and that Americans secure access to name-specific census data after only 70 years.

And they need to be informed that the public release of Canadian census data in the past did not elicit a word of complaint.

Perhaps, most importantly, Canadians need to be reminded that it is impossible today to know what might be historically important tomorrow, and that their descendants, especially their grandchildren, could be deprived access to family information that might not be otherwise available.

Yes, there are hundreds of thousands of Canadians who have put all kinds of personal information on Facebook and similar social media. But not everybody posts details of their life online. And will that information be there in the future given the ephemeral nature of the technology?

At least with the census, there will be a reliable source of information about all Canadians — but only if the informed-consent question is removed.

It is imperative, then, that the legislated review be held as soon as possible.

The opt-in question should not stand in the way of Canadian history and family research.

Surely, that is just as important as a mandatory long-form census.

This piece originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

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