In recent days, the mainstream media has been covering the Conservative government's recent moves to replace the mandatory long-form census with a voluntary long-form. Reactions to this decision have run the gamut from the libertarian viewpoint rejoicing that Canadians can retain a bit more of their privacy to the Liberal Party's response demanding a meeting of the Industry, Science and Technology Committee to force the Conservatives to explain the changes. Maybe the Harper government does have some "under-the-table" nefarious purpose behind the changes. Who really knows? The most interesting response came late Wednesday from Canada's Chief Statistician Munir Sheikh, the head of Statistics Canada. Mr. Sheikh informed the media that he was resigning from his position because he feels that a voluntary survey cannot take the place of the mandatory long-form survey that it is replacing. Here is a quote from his letter of resignation:
"I want to take this opportunity to comment on a technical statistical issue which has become the subject of media discussion. This relates to the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census.
It can not."
I have to give Mr. Sheikh one thing, he's a principled civil servant who puts his money where his mouth is.
In the past, I have been a recipient of the long-form census. It asked a great number of questions that I was very uncomfortable answering. Perhaps Mr. Sheikh does not mind sharing personal details about his life with the government but I do. There are questions that even my extended family would probably not ask and yet, government invasion into my privacy is seen something that I have to tolerate under threat of law.
Many organizations are lamenting the loss of a source of data that they claim is irreplaceable. I would suggest otherwise. Here is a letter that is given out to households that are forced to participate in Statistics Canada's Labour Force Survey from which the monthly Employment Statistics are compiled. As you can see, I've highlighted the line where Canadians are told that their participation in the Labour Force is required by law:
Along with the letter, participants also receive a nice colour brochure that touts the advantages and importance of the survey and explains how it works.
As stated under the Statistics Act, here are the penalties for refusing or neglecting to answer the questions or answering the questions falsely that are posed to you by Statistics Canada employees or refusing or neglecting to fill in and return a form that Statistics Canada requires you to fill out.
False or unlawful information
31. Every person who, without lawful excuse,
(a) refuses or neglects to answer, or wilfully answers falsely, any question requisite for obtaining any information sought in respect of the objects of this Act or pertinent thereto that has been asked of him by any person employed or deemed to be employed under this Act, or
(b) refuses or neglects to furnish any information or to fill in to the best of his knowledge and belief any schedule or form that the person has been required to fill in, and to return the same when and as required of him pursuant to this Act, or knowingly gives false or misleading information or practises any other deception thereunder
is, for every refusal or neglect, or false answer or deception, guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding five hundred dollars or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months or to both. 1970-71-72, c. 15, s. 29.
Note that you can be fined up to $500 and/or spend three months in jail. I find that totally out of line considering that, in the grand scheme of things, the offence is not that serious. If you don't wish to answer questions posed about your income or other very private issues when Statistics Canada comes knocking at your door, that is not an option under the Statistics Act.
So much for privacy.