Madam Speaker, it is my pleasure to rise today to talk about the changes that this government announced earlier this summer regarding revisions to the 2011 census process, including the move from a mandatory long form census questionnaire to the new voluntary national household survey.
Before I begin that, I think it is important to note the contrasting positions between the opposition and the government. The difference could not be made more clear.
This government believes we must strike a balance between the need for information and the threat of jail and/or fines to gather that information. The opposition instead brushes those concerns aside and demands that Canadians provide detailed information on over 40 pages of questions whether they want to or not.
It is our position that the opposition's position does not provide balance. That is plain and simple.
We have always been and continue to be fully supportive of the census in terms of its objective. Yet we must strike that balance between Canadians' rights to refuse answering those questions and the government's needs or desires to know the answers.
It is in this context that the government announced its decision to move away from the mandatory long form census to the voluntary survey. This change reflects our government's belief that no individual should be coerced on threat of imprisonment or fines into surrendering the answers to the 40 pages of questions that make up the long form.
Let me put this question perhaps a little bit rhetorically to any member of the Liberal, Bloc or NDP coalition partners. If someone in their riding does not want to complete the 40 pages of personal, private questions about their ancestry or parts of their belief system, about their day-to-day routines or about the state of repair of their homes, is it the appropriate government response to harass them until they relent and comply?
The members opposite have been clear that this is what they believe. That is what they stand for. It is not what I stand for, nor is it what this government can support. Asking someone how many sick days they took last year, under threat of imprisonment or massive fines, is quite rightly seen by some as incredibly intrusive on the part of the state.
It is because of this issue that our government compromised by creating the voluntary national household survey.
It is my belief and the belief of this government and representing Canadians who believe this way as well that this new approach achieves the appropriate balance between the need to collect information on households for informed public policy purposes and the removal of undue legal penalties on Canadians who choose not to do so.
What I have found most profoundly disappointing in the course of this debate over the last couple of months is the casual acceptance of coercive tactics to acquire more and more personal information from Canadians. It is a form of data farming.
We know there is appetite for more information from business and from other organizations, but under this 40-page form, government becomes the strong arm of enforcement to get this information by using threats.
I know the opposition says no one has been jailed, but quite frankly, when Canadians have someone at their door saying, “You're going to go to jail” and that person represents the government, that is a threat of jail. It is a threat of massive fines. Those threats are delivered by agents of the government.
Just think of this. For many in our society, many Canadians, our friends, our neighbours, perhaps family members, this is their only encounter with the government and it is not a pleasant one.
I have spoken to some of our hired census takers. One of them was in tears as she told me how new Canadians, terrified, thought they would be deported if they did not answer the long form questions.
Some members on the other side of the House are laughing at me right now. I do not think this is a laughing matter. They laugh and they interrupt. That is their casualness toward this issue.
Another census taker said that despite the best efforts of Statistics Canada, because it has a policy on this, some census takers were hired from the same neighbourhood as the responders, meaning our neighbours could know some of our most personal and intimate information.
For the opposition and other segments of our society, these are but trifles. They are of no major concern. Their position is information is key and the desire and demand for that information is to be balanced by nothing. However, we believe this is a terrible degradation of the social contract between the governors and the governed. We need to restore balance.
I recognize, for the purposes of debating this motion, that some critics have come to the table by calling on the government to introduce legislative amendments to the Statistics Act to remove completely the provisions of imprisonment from section 31 of the act in relation to the long form census, the census of population and the census of agriculture.
Colleagues will be pleased to know that I have already announced that we will remove this kind of heavy-handed punishment upon acceptance by this chamber and the other place. The new legislation will remove the threat of imprisonment for a citizen who chose to exercise the right to refuse to participate in any and all mandatory Statistics Canada surveys.
It has always been the position of any government, regardless of political stripe, historically in the country that the government of the day has always determined which questions are mandatory and which are not. This is not the first time changes have been made to the census. In fact, the census has evolved over time. Questions are modified, added and deleted with each new cycle to take into account a number of factors such as consultation feedback, support of legislation, program of policy needs, historical comparability and alternative data sources.
Although the census dates back to 1871, the long form has existed only since 1971. The amount of private detailed information the government is asking of Canadians has increased considerably.
Remember that the basic long form census questions have remained constant for decades, but the additional 40 or 50 questions that suddenly appeared in 1971 have been continually modified with new ones added each census. Not only the questions have changed, but the collection methods for the census have evolved over time. Some changes are definitely on the plus side, including, for example, the fact that in 1971 Canadians began to complete the questionnaire themselves rather than the previous approach of giving oral answers to an interviewer, although that practice exists in certain extenuating circumstances, or that beginning in 2006, Canadians were given the option of providing their answers via the Internet. It is our hope that in 2011 even more Canadians will choose to respond online to both the census and the national household survey.
However, not so welcome has been the probing questions under a mandatory regime and they seem particularly less welcome in a technological environment where Canadians are more and more sensitive about privacy issues.
The short form census continues to be mandatory, but the short form questions are much less invasive. Because it is short, the form is considerably less onerous to fill out. It contains questions on core demographic information such as date of birth, gender, marital status, mother tongue, which previous short form censuses included. Although there is an element of compulsion to fill out the short form, the questions, by virtue of what they are and the fact that there are only 10 of them, make filling out the form much less of a privacy concern for most citizens.
I want to repeat for the record that all households in Canada will receive the short form census in 2011. As hon. members might be aware by my answers in question period this past week, our government further compromised, by being the fair and reasonable government that we are, by adding two additional questions on official languages in the short form. I can assure the House that all questions relating to the official languages asked in the 2006 census will be maintained in the 2011 version, including knowledge of official languages, mother tongue and languages spoken at home.
The 2011 census includes additional questions on Canadians' ability to speak both official languages and on the language spoken at home. These questions will allow the government to respect the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Official Languages Act.
I truly believe a voluntary survey combined with the census for which the threat of jail time is removed in instances of non-compliance is an approach that strikes a reasonable balance between the privacy of citizens and the need for these data. This does not mean that the national household survey will be any less comprehensive than the current mandatory form. The questions will virtually be the same and will include queries on income and housing which, for example, measure crowding and identify housing needs, leading to the development of community housing programs.
One of the key issues in the public debate on these changes to the census has been the issue of data quality. I can report in this place that Statistics Canada believes, rightly so, that the national household survey will result in usable and useful data that can meet the needs of many users.
On the advice of Statistics Canada, which recognizes the sample size would decrease as the long form becomes voluntary, the government has agreed to send the national household survey to nearly double the number of Canadian households as compared to the 2006 long form census. This will be the largest survey distributed to the Canadian population in our nation's history in terms of volume with the long form being distributed to more households than ever before.
Statistics Canada would administer the NHS in close coordination with the census. It will use a variety of methods to encourage people to fill out the new survey, methods similar to those used in its other voluntary household surveys that have already proved to be very useful. This includes direct mail outs, highlighting the importance of the NHS and reminders to non-respondents to complete their forms. The agency will also pursue the best approach to encourage Canadians to complete both the census and the national household survey.
Inherent in this approach is a reasonable compromise that gives us the ability to get what the chief statistician has called “useful and usable data” to meet the needs of many users. To ensure that the sample size is sufficient in order for the data to be useful and usable, we have to actively work with individuals and groups. The government has a plan to do just that, while relying on Statistics Canada's ability to conduct voluntary surveys, its experience, professionalism and rigorous methods.
Through the methodologies I just described, I think they meet head on some of the issues of survey bias. However, our government is focused on finding an appropriate balance between the needs of organizations of governments to use the data, as I mentioned, and the needs of ordinary Canadians who do not like being threatened at their door.
I have often heard members of the opposition attempt to set aside the government's concern about the threat of jail by citing the number of Canadians actually sentenced. I refer to the survey in my remarks. As I mentioned, this misses the point entirely. Canadians who refused to fill out the long form census in previous years have been threatened with fines, jail or both. I have heard this not only in my own personal encounters, but at the committee hearings that were held this summer in this place.
I would be wrong if I did not acknowledge publicly that some unknowns exist out there. We still have to fight against selection bias, although no one really knows until we actually do the survey. We know that some groups tend to under-sample, the very rich, the very poor, new immigrant groups and so forth, but we can then work with those groups and those individuals to get those numbers up.
What the government will not do, however, is compel Canadians, under threat of a criminal record, to complete the national household survey. I want to be clear on that point. We took a principled decision, and I believe the right decision, to put an end to the concept of threatening Canadians with fines and/or jail time for not completing the 40-page census long form, and we stand by that decision.
In short, the government wants to protect our citizens from invasion of privacy and not be the source of those invasions. Be it our neighbours, friends or family members, simply some do not want to fill out the form based on those privacy concerns. I simply cannot agree with those who endorse any sort of a coercion as acceptable and indeed desirable government policy for the long form census
We believe that our new approach of combining a mandatory short form census with a voluntary long form survey achieves that appropriate balance between the need for data to inform public policy research, while respecting those hard fought for privacy rights of Canadians.
For hon. colleagues, I reiterate that the 2011 census will provide a high level of demographic and economic information as it always has. I am also confident that the change to our collection process for the new national household survey will provide that useful and reliable data for the government and indeed for all Statistic Canada's clients. This is an important point and it is a point that our government remains steadfast, that we have not only taken the time to seek the reasonable balance, we have found the reasonable balance.