With instincts like these, who needs data?

Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl came to Whitehorse last week to deliver a message: the government can function just fine without the information from the mandatory long-form census.

Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl came to Whitehorse last week to deliver a message: the government can function just fine without the information from the mandatory long-form census.

Strahl’s colleagues were out and about across the country delivering the same message. You don’t need good data, they tell us, to deliver good government.

A couple of years ago, I was the lucky recipient of the long census form. I hated it. I resisted answering. It felt like a nasty invasion of my privacy. I ignored the form and the repeated demands that I fill it out until a hapless census taker caught me on the phone and wheedled and cajoled me into going through the questions with her.

So when I heard that the Conservatives were dropping the mandatory long form, I was predisposed to like the idea. Why should the government know how much money I make – oh wait, the tax department already knows that in far greater detail than they’ll ever find on the census form.

Well, why should they know how many kids I’ve got and what they do for a living? OK, bad example, they all have birth certificates and Social Insurance numbers anyway. But they definitely don’t have the right to know how many times a week I shave. Not that they actually asked me that, but you know what I mean.

Intrusive as the long form census felt, in retrospect, I can’t think of a single detail on it that was completely private information to begin with. Still, there is something unnerving about having to put all that stuff on one form. I must say, when I heard it was to be dropped, it put a smile on my face: even the Harper government could come up with an idea I liked! And then the story began to develop, and I began to learn a little more about the importance of census data.

The long census form is the government’s best source for information on housing. It’s where most of the data comes from that tells us how many Canadians are living in sub-standard, over-crowded houses in remote communities most of us know nothing about. It tells us what proportion of these people are immigrants, or aboriginal, or women. Provinces and territories looking for federal assistance, First Nations building a case for public support, citizens groups trying to make a change, all these rely on the national census data.

Everyone from Statistics Canada to Human Rights Watch opposes the move to scrap the long-form census, because it’s the only way government offices, NGOs, and reform-minded groups can gain access to the information they need to pursue their goals. One prominent group, the right-wing apologist Fraser Institute, supports the move, apparently for exactly the same reason.

The Fraser considers the long form unnecessary, since the people who really need the data, like oil companies and right-wing think tanks for instance, can afford to purchase private polling information. Take away the publicly funded census, and only those with the deepest of pockets will have access to hard data on social and economic conditions. From the point of view of the folks at Fraser, this is a good thing, because it means that all data will be sharply skewed to the right.

Of course, the Conservatives aren’t trying to get rid of all that pesky data that people like me keep using to call for action on, for instance, the inexcusable hardships facing so many remote aboriginal communities in Canada: they’re just being considerate of First Nations peoples’ desire for privacy. According to Minister Strahl, “Most First Nations don’t want to fill out a form that will give them access to healing services through the Canada Health system because they do not trust the government with that information. That’s a fact.”

The minister was unspecific about the source of that fact – though I think we can take it as stated that he didn’t get it from StatsCan. He does seem to have a deep personal understanding of attitudes among Canada’s indigenous people, as he went on to say, “Ninety-nine per cent of First Nations – and that’s just a statistic I made up, by the way – I bet you almost all First Nations say, I’m not filling (the census) out. I don’t trust the government on this and I’m worried about it.”

So you see, the Conservatives have no need of real statistical data. They just make it up as they go along. Chuck Strahl bets you that almost all First Nations don’t fill out the form, and that’s that. When you’re blessed with a gambler’s instincts, who needs facts?

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.

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