This week, at last, I had opportunity to see the new, shorter census forms crafted by the Harper government. They are indeed quickly answered, but much is lost
for demographic information needed by many organizations. We shall now know less about who we are as a people living in our province and in Canada. Churches and religious organizations will especially be affected by the demise of
the mandatory, longer census forms. They have expressed vigorous opposition to the change. Jewish, Muslim and Christian groups have pointed to areas of vital service that will suffer from loss of census data.
Jewish and Muslim opposition
The Canadian Jewish Congress addressed a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, asking him to reverse the policy because it sees vital data from the long-form census “as a critical source of information for planning, fundraising and implementing programs and services that support … the cultural, social, health care, educational, housing, recreational and spiritual needs of our communities.”
In an interview, Bernie Farber, CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, lamented that “without that demographic data, we just can’t plan properly.”
The Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC) considered the policy change “questionable at best” and urged Tony Clement, the minister responsible for the change, to continue with the mandatory, long-form census.
“The mandatory census,” Imam Dr. Zijad Delic wrote to the Friday Magazine of the CIC, “is the only reliable source through which our Canadian Muslim leadership is able to gauge the demographic priorities of a very diverse community and offer help where needed. If this question is omitted, we will not have adequate information to help us fulfil our mission successfully as both a faith community and as faithful citizens of this great country.”
No privacy issue
Likewise, Christian organizations oppose the new short-form and voluntary census, including Evangelicals. Rick Hiemstra, director of the Centre for Research on Canadian Evangelicalism, wrote that he did not fear the invasion of privacy given as a reason for the policy change by the Harper Conservatives. For him, the Privacy Act and the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act adequately safeguard the “strong privacy protections around Canadian census data.”
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Industry minister to reverse the change, while Anglican Church leaders reminded the minister that charitable work would suffer.
“In spiritual terms,” Archdeacons Michael Pollesel and John M. Robertson wrote, “this loving human response comes by the grace of God, but in practical terms, it is emboldened and upheld by reliable information and sound methodologies. Statistical information has to help transform thought into action in profound and life-giving ways.”
And Rev. Dr. Bruce Gregersen, once a United Church minister in our province — and now general council officer, programs, for the national church — said, “We see this as a step backward at a time when Canadians need access to reliable census information to help build a more equitable and just society.”
Religious minority groups especially benefit from census data, according to Hiemstra. The reliable and verifiable numbers provided by Statistics Canada not only serve legal purposes, but help in analyzing trends, and identify needs and services, notably for those who are most marginalized in society.
“The census,” writes Hiemstra, “causes marginalized groups to be visible to governments who might otherwise ignore them because they aren’t powerful. It also allows us and others to advocate on their behalf.”
What about our province?
Aside from these practical considerations, anyone following religious developments and changes happening in our province needs a reliable and consistent instrument by which to measure such change and to compare the current demographics with those of previous censuses.
For example, was the first-time loss recorded in 2001 of more than 15 per cent of provincial Pentecostals in one decade caused by temporary outmigration? Or are Newfoundland Pentecostals now in line with their Canadian brothers and sisters who dropped by roughly a similar percentage?
Has the doubling of Muslims in our province from 1991 to 2001 continued, decreased, or even accelerated? Do the relatively low numbers of people claiming “no religion” in our province (2.5 per cent), compared with the national figures (16.2 per cent), continue to hold, or has loss of religious affiliation increased?
These are questions that we shall no longer be able to answer without the mandatory, longer census form. We shall be the poorer for it.
Hans J. Rollmann is a professor of Religious Studies at MUN and can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.