Mr. Speaker, I too am pleased to take part in this debate which is, really, a debate about social values.
This is about the social values surrounding the possibility of investigating our past, of tracing our history as precisely as possible on the one hand, and on the other, the very modern value of respecting privacy. These two ideas clash. This is a debate that has already been taking place for a number of years in Canada, and I will come back to this later.
Let us look at Bill C-312 for a moment. The summary of the bill stipulates the following:
This enactment expressly authorizes the transfer of all census records from Statistics Canada to the National Archives of Canada for permanent safekeeping. It gives access to the records to genealogists and other researchers 92 years after the census, subject to a privacy right it creates that allows individuals to object to the disclosure of personal information in the census records.
The previous speaker made reference to the fact that he introduced a motion in the House two years ago, Motion M-160 if I am not mistaken, which was amended, and which was as follows:
That, in the opinion of this House, the government should take all necessary steps to release the 1911 census records once they have been deposited in the National Archives in 2003.
Unfortunately, this motion was not implemented in the way we would have liked following its adoption in the House. That having been said, the reason was probably something to do with this debate on social values to which I referred and which was going on.
It is important to point out that on November 5, 1999, the then Minister of Industry, the current Deputy Prime Minister, formed a committee of experts with the mandate to examine access to historic census records and to submit a report on the legal and privacy repercussions of releasing census records.
The committee was to examine Canadians' views on the advisability of continuing to protect information and determine the options for making this kind of information available to the public. The committee consisted of eminent academics and a retired supreme court judge. It received over 2,500 opinions, briefs, letters and pieces of correspondence and the work went on for several months, approximately seven in fact.
One of the recommendations the committee made in its report was that the public be allowed access? to all past, present and future census records 92 years after the data are collected.
On December 15, 2000, the then Minister of Industry, Mr. Tobin, released the committee's report, indicating that since this study and the issues involved were very complex, there should be a second more intensive study, given the broad ramifications, and new public consultations.
Environics was the group selected to carry out the consultations seeking public opinion on the release of post-1901 information. These public consultations were held throughout Quebec and Canada from December 14, 2001 to January 30, 2002. The public report, which was submitted to Statistics Canada on February 15, contained 11 records of proceedings following the various meetings held by Environics.
Clearly, the debate is still ongoing. The conclusions are not final, and our colleague has presented Bill C-312 which, I must say, takes care to establish a certain number of safeguards for use by citizens who fear that personal and confidential information might be released. There are a number of arguments in favour of releasing data from the various censuses.
Should we decide to go this route, we would have to make sure that this possibility—the fact that in 92 years this information will become public—is mentioned on census forms, so that citizens are fully aware of how the information they provide in a census will be treated.
It is assumed that 92 years later, a large number of those who provided information in a census will unfortunately no longer be around. Therefore, they could not personally be answerable for the information they provided 92 years earlier.
Bill C-312 also specifies that only genealogists and duly authorized researchers would have access to these documents. It must be understood that these documents would not be accessible for public consultation. They would only be available to experts whose job it is to describe how society evolves and the major changes that affect it. For genealogists and historians, the historical information contained in the various censuses is truly invaluable.
Incidentally, a number of western democracies, including the United States and the United Kingdom, already have legislation allowing for the disclosure of confidential information after a certain number of years. In the case of the United States, it is 72 years after a census, while in the United Kingdom, it is 100 years. The hon. member's bill provides for a 92 year period, which seems perfectly reasonable under the circumstances.
As I indicated, the bill proposed by the hon. member includes a number of safeguards. For example, an individual who does not want the information he provides in a census to eventually become public could prevent this from happening 92 years later. Some might claim that the bill includes enough safeguards to go ahead without compromising an individual's ability to defend and protect personal information.
Now let us look at the arguments against this bill. Of course, there is the fact that the confidentiality of census information has been entrenched in Canadian legislation since 1911. This means that an individual may have died with the conviction that the information that he or she provided during a census would never be made public. Obviously, that individual would not expect, a few years after his or her death, that parliament would revisit the issue and decide to release the information that individual thought would never be made public.
It is also a problem because filling out census questionnaires has become mandatory. There are penalties for those who fail to do so. What then will the information given on these census questionnaires be worth, if the respondent knows that information he or she wanted to keep confidential will be made public one day?
Let us not forget the fact that the privacy commissioner has expressed serious reservations with regard to the possibility of releasing census information that is considered confidential.
As we can see, that are relevant and legitimate arguments to be made both in favour and against the release of personal information. For those in favour of this bill, it would be logical to think that general information only, and not specifically personal information, would be made public.
However, there are some serious reservations. We must take into account these reservations and these legitimate concerns expressed by people who are worried that personal information they provided could be released in the future.