Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to rise today to take part in this important discussion we are having on the revision of the 2011 census. In particular, I would like to discuss where official language questions sit within the new 2011 census. However, first I want to say a few words about the history of the census, because it helps put the recent events into context.
Since it was first conducted in 1666 by Canada's first official statistician, Jean Talon, the census has provided a portrait of our people and the communities in which we live. At that time, the census tallied a grand total of 3,215 inhabitants and recorded age, sex, marital status, and occupation. This information was used to help plan and develop the colony of New France, and it set the stage for succeeding governments to use statistical information to guide decision-making.
In 1871, the first national census occurred, following which the constitution required that a census be taken every tenth year thereafter. In that year, information was collected on housing stock, armaments, livestock, crops, buildings, churches, grist mills, firearms, race, religion, and ethnic origin. The main goal of this national census was to determine the appropriate representation by population in the new Parliament.
Let us move forward, a full 70 years later, to 1941, by which time data collection was becoming more sophisticated and comprehensive. By 1956, rapid growth in our population and agriculture promoted the need for benchmarks at five-year intervals to provide a more accurate basis for annual statistics. It was that year that the first national quinquennial census was conducted. In addition, for the first time, television was used to encourage Canadians to fill out the census. Again, the passage of time led to revisions in our census-taking methods. Accordingly, the 1971 census introduced more innovations than any of its predecessors. In fact, it is only since 1971 that Canadians have completed the questionnaires themselves rather than give oral answers to a door-to-door Stats Can interviewer.
Also, 1971 was the first year of the long form census. The short form was distributed to a sample of Canadian households covering the basic population, and it asked nine housing questions. The long form went to the remaining households and contained the same questions as the short form plus 50 additional questions dealing with a wide variety of socio-economic matters, which greatly expanded the scope and intent of the census from what it had been in prior years.
In 2006, as more and more Canadians gained access to the Internet, households across the country were offered the convenience of completing their questionnaires online.
That, my colleagues, is the briefest of highlights from 360 years of census history in Canada. As a country, we have grown from 3,215 inhabitants to a nation of more than 33 million.
The 2011 version will continue the tradition of earlier censuses. It will continue to paint a picture of the people living in Canada. We have refined the collection methodology and at the same time are making the process less intrusive, less coercive, and easier to complete. In short, in 2011 the census has once again been revised and updated to suit the times, as it has been many times in the past.
The long form census will now be made voluntary and the threats of jail time or heavy fines will be removed.
It may also interest the House to know the questions in the 2011 national household survey are exactly the same as what would have appeared in the mandatory long form census.
The government does not dispute that we need solid, basic demographic information about Canada and Canadians. Clearly this has been the purpose of the census for many years and we feel that this necessary information will be collected on the census short form rather than on the long form introduced in the 1970s. With the existing distribution of the national household survey going to so many millions of households and with the short form being sent to 100% of the households with the same demographic and language questions that the 2006 census covered, we are confident that the 2011 version will continue to provide vital planning information for governments and other users of census data.
The debate before us today is not about the data. The debate is about the differences, and most important, the contrasting positions between the opposition and the government, a difference that could not be more pronounced.
The government believes we must strike a fair balance between the need for information and the personal privacy rights of Canadians. Further, we strongly believe it is unacceptable that an agent of the Government of Canada uses the threat of jail or fines to gather that information.
The opposition coalition has made it clear that they do not care about those concerns. They choose instead to demand that Canadians provide detailed information on over 40 pages of questions whether they want to or not. Under their rules, data at all costs trump the personal rights of Canadians. The opposition cannot have fully thought through their position, though, because I cannot think of any member of the House who could honestly tell a constituent to fill in a form against his or her will or go to jail.
I have to assume that we are all here today debating the invasion of Canadians privacy for nothing more than reasons of pure partisanship. I would think those we represent would expect that we could do something much more productive with our time, perhaps finding more ways to get more Canadians into jobs, or working harder on pulling Canada out of the recession.
On that note I would like to address concerns about how the government is able to comply with the obligations under the Official Languages Act. First and foremost, as has been said, the government is committed to providing usable and useful data that can meet user needs. As hon. members know, to address any official language concerns the government has added two additional questions to the short form. I can assure the House that all questions relating to 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. Of course, the government, in all its actions on this matter, remains fully committed to taking into account the priorities and any concerns of the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages.
To meet both the spirit and the letter of the law, the minister announced in August the addition of two language questions in the census questionnaire to meet the requirements of the Official Languages Act.
The following questions were approved by order in council and published in the Canada Gazette on August 21:
Question 7 of the 2011 census reads:
Can this person speak English or French well enough to conduct a conversation?
Question 8(a) reads:
What language does this person speak most often at home?
Question 8(b) reads:
Does this person speak any other languages on a regular basis at home?
Question 9 reads:
What is the language that this person first learned at home in childhood and still understands?
These questions together will ensure the government's compliance with the Official Languages Act. This includes providing services to and communicating with the public in both official languages, supporting the development of official language minority communities, and fostering the full recognition and the use of English and French in Canadian society.
Of course, these questions on the 2011 census go beyond the mere meaning of legislative requirements. The answers to these questions will provide the government with key official language demographics throughout Canada.
In that regard, I would be remiss if I did not remind my hon. colleagues that, just as the mandatory long form did before it, the national household survey will also have a question on the language most often and readily used in the workplace. The point is that between the census and the national household survey we will be gathering essentially the same official language information as we did in 2006.
The government is fully committed to the notion that the vitality of the official language minority community is fundamentally important to the cultural mosaic that is Canada. To back up these words, we are proud of our unparalleled investment of $1.1 billion to support those communities through the road map for linguistic duality initiative.
It seems to me that through these actions we will be in a position to provide the sort of information that stakeholder language and cultural groups find most valuable.
The long and the short of it is that the government has a clear vision with respect to supporting and developing official language minority communities and promoting our two official languages to all Canadians.
Part of that support is through the data that has been, and will continue to be, collected via the census and other sources. We believe the 2011 census and the national household survey, along with the other survey sources from Statistics Canada, will continue to play this important role.
I would ask that all members encourage their constituents to complete the census when they receive it next May, because ultimately it will provide us with the information we need to build a better future.
A concurrence motion was brought forward by the NDP on Friday of last week and I had the opportunity to speak to that motion. I do not know why the coalition does not get its act together to find out who is moving what and when so we are not debating the same thing twice within a five-day period, but that is fine.
I want to go over a couple of points.
I made the point that according to the definition of a census in law, a census has to carry penalties. All of us in the House agree about removing the jail time. No one has ever served jail time.
The other part is the issue of the fine. For it to be defined as a census, it has to carry a mandatory requirement and that mandatory requirement needs some sort of punishment or it is not mandatory but voluntary, and that is all we are doing.
There is a lot of misinformation that the long form census has now disappeared. It has not disappeared. We are making the long form census voluntary, because there was a requirement for penalties. To make sure that we get a good return on the voluntary form, we are increasing the number of Canadians who will receive it by 30%.
I am a bit of a numbers person. We are going from about 2.5 million to 4.5 million people who will receive the long form. Even the statisticians and the people who appeared before committee said we would probably get about a 70% return rate. That is 800,000 more returns than we have now under the mandatory system.
People argue that we might get more back but they are worried about the quality. I disagree. I believe Canadians understand that providing us with information through the voluntary system, through the national household survey, will help with the development of public policy. It will help social service communities and business communities.
Canadians will come to the plate, whether they are in the upper income brackets or receivers of social services. They will fill out the form. There is no evidence that there will be a skew on who will fill it out and who will not. I am confident in Canadians, and as I said in my speech, I ask every single member of Parliament to encourage Canadians in their riding to voluntarily fill out the form when they get it.
To be clear, the way the law stands now, if one does not fill out the form, under the mandatory system, one is facing a fine. Let us assume that there would be no jail time, although there is the threat there; one would face a fine. One of the questions on which a person would be facing a fine is about nationality, where one's parents were born or where one comes from.
Here is one of the questions on which I do not understand why the opposition members want to make it the law to fill out the form. The question asks what is the person's religion. It does not care whether that religion is practised but what the religion is. Maybe the person is Anglican and his wife is Roman Catholic. There is a long list of religions, such as Lutheran, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh. What if individual Canadians feel that religion is a private matter between them and their god? I do not think the Government of Canada needs to know what a person's religion is or whether that religion is practised. Under the present system, if one refuses to fill it out, that could carry a fine because it is a mandatory census.
All we are doing on this side of the House is saying it is a question that should be answered voluntarily by Canadians. We ask them to do it because it does provide information, but it is their private information and not a government requirement.
A constituent of mine, in a previous census, where it asked for nationality and one of the options was native Canadian, put native Canadian. His wife got a phone call from Statistics Canada asking for his Indian card number. She said her husband was not an Indian. Statistics Canada said that he ticked that off and wanted his number. She said she had been married to him for 40 years and should know whether he was an aboriginal Canadian or not. His grandparents were born in Canada. His great-grandparents were born in Canada. Statistics Canada called him back and said to him that he had marked off native Canadian and if he did not have an Indian status card number he could face a fine or jail time for not giving the proper information. They negotiated and he changed his answer because he was not going to face a fine over it, but he made his point.
Do we have to have employees of Statistics Canada calling individuals and threatening them with fines and jail time to fill out these questions? I say not, the Conservatives say not, and I think most Canadians say not.