Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak on this bill entitled an act to amend the Statistics Act.
For many years, historical societies, genealogists and students, conducting various types of research, have been saying that they are facing a huge obstacle, because previous legislation failed to limit how long census information would be kept confidential.
Much time has been needed to analyze and study this issue. Now a bill is before the House. Our society is greatly concerned with the protection of privacy. This reaction is quite understandable.
On one hand, archivists, historians, genealogists and others are interested in historical research and data collected by Statistics Canada. The National Statistics Council and the Privacy Commissioner are among those who initially opposed the release of such information.
As legislators, we need to balance both sides to ensure that this bill does indeed provide sufficient protection of personal information and also allow historians and archivists to do their jobs adequately.
In Canada, there is a long established practice which states that:
All individual census records, up to and including those from the 1901 Census, have been transferred from Statistics Canada to the National Archives and made available for public use. The data for the 1891 and the 1901 Censuses were transferred and released 92 years after their collection.
Hence the minimum waiting period established for the use of information. However, as I mentioned earlier, those using this type of information disagree.
The minister appointed a committee of experts to consider such issues. I want to mention, for example, this committee on which Mr. Justice La Forest, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, sat. He carefully considered the various opinions expressed. He concluded that this guarantee of confidentially was not intended to last indefinitely. He stated:
Our view is that the passage of 92 years is sufficient time to allay concerns regarding individual privacy.
Consequently, the committee addressed this issue and had to assess how to strike a balance between protecting personal information and disclosing information for the purposes of studying history and the past, in order to ensure that our culture in Quebec and Canada would be known in the future under acceptable conditions.
I remember representations, in particular by Jeannine Ouellette, who was very active in the Société d'histoire et de généalogie de Rivière-du-Loup and by people from the Société d'histoire de la Côte-sud. Ms. Ouellette was also heavily involved in a Quebec-wide coalition of genealogical and historical societies.
These representations were made on many occasions to show us that it is not a question of allowing the wholesale use of personal information or of creating a precedent for the future, which would be dangerous, but of having proper guidelines. We believe that is what Bill S-13 provides.
The committee that studied this issue said it was convinced that legislators had probably not wished or intended to provide an indefinite guarantee of confidentiality. Nonetheless, conservation and release dates had been omitted, not because there was opposition to them, but because with the scientific knowledge at the time, the need for such a measure had not been anticipated.
In any event, no law is forever. There is always room to reconsider legislation in the light of reality as it evolves. That is what we are doing today with Bill S-13.
The committee reported, and I quote:
We have reviewed legal opinions provided to Statistics Canada and to the National Archives by the Department of Justice and we recognize that legal minds can differ regarding the legal standing of various assurances given respondents versus the indication that records were to be transferred to the Archives. However, while we find the legal situation ambiguous, we find no convincing evidence that Parliament intended to create perpetual confidentiality.
We have come to the view that the release of pre-1906 census records constitutes a particularly important precedent particularly when combined with the fact that release of the 1891 and 1901 census records occurred in concert with the 1983 Privacy Act. We further believe that the passage of time—92 years in this case—is an important legal and moral consideration and that the release of census records after 92 years in no way violates the original intent of those who developed the census in Canada. We do recognize that the passage of the Statistics Act in 1918, with its encoded guarantees of confidentiality, adds an element of uncertainty as does the disappearance, after 1946, of the requirement that census records be transferred to the National Archives but this does not change our view of the spirit and intent.
On the basis of this analysis and the information provided in it, the 92-year period referred to is the timeframe applicable, when consent has been provided to use the information, to some of the information that can be used for research purposes. For any information concerning a person, it is 112 years. If consent is refused—one may not want the information to be used—the information is then protected forever. No problem there.
Let us come back to the 92-year period. I think that, in this kind of situation, it is important to see how other countries are doing. In most countries where historical census records are released, personal and confidential information is protected for a period of 70 to 100 years, after which the records enter into the public domain.
In Canada, this period of confidentiality varied before enactment of the Privacy Act. Now, however, it sets the period at 92 years. In other countries, such as the U.S., participation in the census is mandatory. There is provision for release after 72 years. The period in the U.K. is 100 years, Australia 99 years, and France 100 years, but a partial release for only a few cantons. This is a peculiarity of the French census. In Canada, as I said, the period is 92 years. It is a bit hard to explain how they came up with that figure, but it seems to have been the time lapse that would have allowed immediate release of the 1891 census data when the legislation was passed in 1983. This strikes us as a worthwhile timeframe.
For all these reasons, the Bloc Quebecois is in favour of the principle behind Bill S-13, because we feel it respects the right to privacy. It demonstrates great respect for those concerned. There is no question of allowing the release of information. The timeframes are set. Given people's life spans and the protection afforded, we feel that this strikes the necessary balance between protecting people's privacy and research requirements.
In concrete terms, Bill S-13 amends the Statistics Act. It was initiated in the Senate, then referred to a Senate committee, and now this is its first time to be debated in the House. We have now reached second reading. It has, however, likely been discussed in all MPs' offices already. Historical and genealogical societies have come to us on numerous occasions to set out what they wanted for the genealogists, who often do research on a volunteer basis. All they need, therefore, is information with which to put together a history of a family or a village. This is the kind of data they need.
For these reasons, we believe that this bill offers a satisfactory way of proceeding. It amends the Statistics Act and attempts to dissipate the legal ambiguity surrounding viewing of census returns from 1910 to 2003. Because of the existing legislation, it was not very clear that such data really could be a released. There have been court cases; but as legislators, we now have an opportunity to settle the issue.
The bill would enable genealogists and historical researchers to consult census returns under certain conditions, for a period of 20 years beginning 92 years after the census. Thus, 92 years after the census, research can begin, under certain specific conditions for a period of 20 years. All restrictions regarding examination of the returns will be lifted 112 years after the date of the census. This period is long enough. Considering the life expectancy of the people covered by a census, it is quite certain that all those individuals will have died by that time. Thus, we will avoid situations where releasing information could create complications.
If we look at the bill in more detail, we see that the new section 17(4) permits a person wishing to conduct genealogical or historical research, who has obtained written approval—it is good that this is specified—to examine census data.
The bill states that section 17 is amended by adding the following:
(5) In deciding whether to approve a historical research project, a person must assess the public and scientific value of the research.
Thus, it cannot be just anyone doing anything at all. There are approvals to obtain; requests must be serious. There is no question of authorizing frivolous proposals.
Conditions governing the use and disclosure of census data apply if a person wishes to obtain authorization for genealogical or historical research. Persons wishing such to examine such records must sign and comply with an undertaking in prescribed form. Anyone who might behave in such as way as to not be in compliance with the law would have to face the consequences, having made a commitment to respect the conditions set out.
In fact, anyone not respecting his or her undertaking is guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding $1,000. This will avoid frivolous searches and will ensure the very serious nature of any studies carried out.
At any rate, historical and genealogical societies throughout Quebec and Canada are very well known for the serious nature of what they do and the quality of the research they produce. They enable us to become familiar with a slice of history that would not otherwise have been known. Often discoveries are made on how certain issues have evolved, ones with real significance for the present and the future. This can stop us from having to reinvent the wheel, among other things.
It is also important to note that subclause 17(7) indicates that, starting one hundred andtwelve years after the census is taken, the information may beexamined by anyone. At that time, the time limit will be up and all information availablemay be consulted.
As well, under 17(8), the information contained in the returnsof any census of population taken in 2006 orlater may, starting ninety-two years after thecensus is taken, be examined by anyone if theperson to whom the information relates had given their consent todisclosure of that information.For censuses after 2006, or in other words the next Canada census, consent must definitely be given if the data is to be made available after 92 years. If consent to disclose personal information is not given by the person concerned, the information will never be made public.
This bill remedies some situations that were unclear in the past, as well as clarifying the situation for the future, which is a good thing. It is a response to the wishes of those who want to see personal information protected when the person concerned has not authorized disclosure. On the other hand, when authorization has been given, there will be appropriate time frames which will make it possible to carry out appropriate research.
New subsection 17(10) states that the returns of each census conducted between 1910 and 2003 or effective 2006 shall, 92 years after the census is taken, be transferred to the National Archives of Canada in order to permit their examination in a single location.
In light of the information I have provided, the Bloc Quebecois finds that Bill S-13 allows important historical information to be studied after an acceptable statutory timeframe. Consequently, in principle, we are in favour of Bill S-13.
It will also help to extend Quebec's common history. Access for archivists and historians, after a period of 92 years, will allow the production of better historical documents that enrich the cultural heritage of Quebec and Canada. Often, one must refer to the interpretation of a period of our history, of our past. With clear rules, a historian will be able to look for the most accurate information possible. There are always political debates on questions of interpretation, but the facts will be there and the public will be able to make a clear decision for itself.
Many experts maintain that census documents are essential to historical and genealogical research. I think they are right. But where do we draw the line between privacy and the need for historical knowledge? The Bloc Quebecois feels that while the right to privacy has to be respected, census information should not be subject to perpetual confidentiality. We would be denying ourselves essential information. For a few years now, historical and genealogical societies have taken all sorts of initiatives that have led to this bill, while ensuring the protection of personal information. This bill will allow both objectives to be met.
With the passage of time, respondents' concerns about protecting their privacy will diminish. Obviously some information can create problems for the living. But once people have passed away and the next generation is in place, there would no longer be a problem because of the timeframe set out in the bill. After an appropriate period of time, the public's right to access census files overrides respondents' rights to privacy, if indeed this timeframe is protected.
Given that the data are not harmful to those still living and that releasing such data cannot harm them, we feel that historical and scientific repercussions are more important than protecting the privacy of the dead. Some people would argue that Canadians were assured that their privacy would be protected. The threat of harm to persons still living is very slim. The data could be released after 92 years or more often after 112 years. Beginning with the 2006 Census, personal information could be protected forever if people so choose.
The Bloc Quebecois does not believe that the dead do not have the right to privacy protection, but the terms in the bill will ensure a reasonable statute of limitations, as recommended by a committee of experts including Mr. Justice La Forest.
Most of the data collected during a census are not confidential and those that are, such as income, can lose some of their confidential nature over time.
Despite the guarantees of confidentially made to the respondents, there was an intent to preserve data collected for future generations, even back then. A good indication of this is the provision that data would be sent to the National Archives of Canada, as set out in the current legislation. The Archives is an organization that has always had the mandate to preserve data for future reference.
We are aware that some people will have concerns about privacy protection. However, this will dissipate over time. This bill, after numerous attempts, will ensure that the goal is reached and that these data will be preserved for historical purposes, as historical societies and genealogical groups have long sought, while ensuring sufficient protection of privacy.
For these reasons, the Bloc Quebecois will vote in favour of this bill.