Making sense of the census debate

Lana Payne
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He just can’t help himself. For someone so obsessed with controlling the message and with being in control, it’s looking like Stephen Harper may have finally lost his edge.

It has been his inability to control his own impulses and rein in his ultra-right ideology that has proven his Achilles heel in the past and will likely prove to be his ultimate ruin.

One of his biggest blunders was the fall of 2008 when he tried to bring the opposition parties to their knees and steadfastly refused to admit that Canada, like the rest of the world, was in the middle of an economic crisis.

This past winter, he again prorogued Parliament for no reason but to get himself out of a jam. His inclination to subvert democracy is part of a bigger plan to fundamentally change the role of the government in Canadian life.

Harper’s agenda has never really been hidden. It’s plain for those interested in seeing a little beneath the surface. It is about eroding rights, especially the rights of women. It is about diminishing the role of government as an agent of civil society. It’s about the individual versus the collective. It’s been about poor public policy.

Yet every time Mr. Harper gives in to his urges, things go badly for the prime minister. The latest foray into confirming most people’s worst fears of Harper and his government has been his dogged determination to eliminate the mandatory long-form census.

Economist Armine Yalnizyan has been one of many voices leading the charge on the need for the mandatory long form. She notes “the census saga has become a parable about how an information society uses, and generates, information, and a metaphor for the role of the state.”

And that is the problem. This crowd running Ottawa is not interested in facts, data, science or getting public policy right. They are only interested into doing everything in their power to push Canadians to the right and profoundly change Canadian society.

Who would have thought that when the federal government silently announced a few weeks ago, through the Canada Gazette, its intention to make the form voluntary that such a firestorm would ensue?

Many have accused the government of trying to slip a fast one past Canadians. The issue has been on the nation’s front pages and in editorial sections for weeks. Every day, another organization or expert speaks out against the change and every day the government’s polling numbers slide a bit further.

For the opposition parties, it is the gift that keeps on giving.

Only in Canada would a soft-

spoken statistician become a national hero for standing up for his principles and for the accuracy, quality and integrity of data necessary for informed public policy decision-making.

The former head of Statistics Canada, Munir Sheikh, resigned after Industry Minister Tony Clement implied publicly that the world-renowned agency was OK with the shift from a mandatory to a voluntary form and supported the Conservative plan which will cost taxpayers an additional $30 million.

Last week, it became clear that not only did the government know that the chief statistician and the agency did not support the move to a voluntary survey, but there was also considerable political pressure put on Mr. Sheikh to give the decision his stamp of approval.

The opposition to the Conservative plan is explained best by Ms. Yalnizyan, who notes that a voluntary form will not ensure Canadians from all walks of life and all corners of this great nation are providing answers to the survey. “There is no way to assess whether you are reflecting Canadian reality or just the reality of those who opted to answer,” she says.

And therein lies the problem. The big concern is the voluntary survey will result in under-

representation from the poor, the rich and immigrants, resulting in a faulty image of Canada.

But the census has just been one of several miscues for the government this summer. It started with the $1 billion G20 meetings that turned into an abhorrent violation of civil liberties.

The week previous, the government’s get-tough-on-crime legislation was given a nasty dose of fiscal reality by the parliamentary budget officer.

Then, Canadians learned that while the unemployed were falling off of EI benefits with not a lot of job recovery happening, their government intended to spend between $9 and $16 billion on fighter jets.

Ottawa has so far refused to extend employment insurance stimulus measures to help the unemployed.

The census, prisons, increasing military spending, attacking women’s equality and eliminating things that enhance our democracy, like the former Court Challenges Program, are just a few on a long list of changes aimed at reshaping Canada. 

Mark Twain once wrote that facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.

In the case of the Harper Conservatives, we have learned they don’t take too kindly to the facts and it appears they are also offended by the more pliable statistics.

Ultimately, though, this is about democracy and our country, the kind we want, or the kind Stephen Harper would like to impose on us.

Lana Payne is president of the

Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by e-mail at

Her column returns Aug. 28.

Organizations: Canada Gazette, Statistics Canada, Harper Conservatives Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour

Geographic location: Canada, Ottawa

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Recent comments

  • Eugene from Town
    August 15, 2010 - 07:43

    The mantra, 'Break it (government) and the population will agree with us that it's time to scrap it' has been informing conservative (neo-con?) policy for 3 decades. Unfortunately, seeing the nature of our democracy being changed before their eyes, doesn't seem to be enough motivation for the opposition to act.

  • Charles Kennedy
    August 14, 2010 - 14:04

    Well stated Lana.Keep 'em coming. Harper has to go and the sooner the better. Prof K