Who needs data? Part two.

Last week, Nordicity reported that certain ministers in Canada's Conservative government had developed such acute instincts that they no longer require statistics, data, or indeed facts of any kind on which to base public policy.

Last week, Nordicity reported that certain ministers in Canada’s Conservative government had developed such acute instincts that they no longer require statistics, data, or indeed facts of any kind on which to base public policy. To recap, Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl had let slip to a Whitehorse audience the news that cabinet decisions are now based on statistics which are invented on the spot.

The casual listener may have thought Strahl was joking when he referred to “ninety-nine per cent of First Nations – and that’s just a statistic I made up, by the way ….” But an item in this week’s news reveals that the minister’s faith-based data creation is part of a trend among senior Conservatives toward greater creativity in the field of statistics.

At an Ottawa news conference on Tuesday, Stockwell Day, President of the Treasury Board, was asked to explain why his deficit-ridden government was planning to spend $9.5 billion on new prisons when Statistics Canada figures demonstrate a steady decline in crime rates.

Day replied, “We’re very concerned … about the increase in the amount of unreported crimes that surveys clearly show are happening. People simply aren’t reporting the same way they used to.” Let’s look beyond the fact that Day appears not to know the difference between an amount and a number – today’s column is not about grammar or syntax – to a couple of other questions raised by this remark.

The first question that arises is, how do you prosecute an unreported crime? Even sloppy money managers like Stephen Harper and crew must surely expect to purchase a fair number of cells for nine-and-a-half billion. Do they really plan to fill them with unreported criminals?

The next query that springs to mind, and one which a reporter at the press conference raised with the minister is, how is it possible to know about these crimes if they are unreported? At the time, Day had no answer, and in fact babbled for a few embarrassing minutes before promising to get that information – too bad Chuck Strahl wasn’t there to make up a statistic for him.

Later, however, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson’s office released the figures on which Day’s claim were based. They came, not from the imagination of the INAC minister, nor even from that of Day himself, but from a Statistics Canada study of 24,000 Canadians which did indeed find that in 2004, only 34 per cent of crimes were reported, down from 37 per cent in 1999.

Oddly enough, during the same news conference in which he was unable to remember this report, Day dismissed the information gathered by the long-form census on the grounds that data more than a year old is “untenable in today’s information age.” I guess he forgot to add “unless it supports the government’s position, in which case it can be six years old and predate our election by two years and remain quite tenable, thank you.”

To give credit where credit is due, Day and Strahl are not the only cabinet ministers to engage in creative statistics. In March, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews told a parliamentary committee that despite Statistics Canada figures showing that crime is down three per cent from last year and 17 per cent from 1999, there has been “a huge increase in crime in this country … I believe it’s somewhere between 15 per cent and 19 per cent.”

So there you have it. Crime is on the rise in Canada. Unreported, and almost all of it petty crime that would not result in prison sentences, it is nonetheless rising, and something must be done – preferably something meaningless, useless, vengeful and hugely expensive. Better yet, something that will push petty criminals into prisons, those most venerable institutes of higher education in crime.

According to Nordicity’s private polling numbers, 100 per cent of observers, with a margin of error of nil, think Stockwell Day was already out of his depth in 1978 when he was pastor at the Bentley Christian Centre. A similar number of respondents to our survey felt that Vic Toews is a babbling idiot who shouldn’t be turned loose in public without a pacifier in his mouth.

Those are our figures, and we stand by them. Challenge them if you will, but of one thing you can rest assured: they won’t cost you 9.5 billion dollars.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.