Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to rise and address this important legislation.
It is good to be back in this place. Maybe I am the only member who thinks this, but when I am away on the long breaks, I do kind of miss the House of Commons, so it is good be back and speaking again.
Before I proceed to discuss this legislation, I hope members will indulge me with a few brief remarks on the events of the weekend.
Canada as a nation is defined by unity in the midst of our diversity, and an attack on one person or one community is an attack on all of us. Indeed, we must respond and we have already responded together across faith lines and across party lines, and that response has to continue.
Details remain unclear about the motivations of the attackers, but in whatever sense, I think we know that this terrorist attack which targeted the Muslim community in Quebec seeks to undermine our unity. I have already seen comments by those who want to blame this on our commitment to pluralism, and this is precisely what terrorism seeks to do: to undermine our values and our sense of solidarity. Terrorism does not just seek to take life, it also seeks to undermine our way of life, so today we must continue to stand together, fight back, and downgrade and defeat radical violent extremism in all of its forms.
I also want to extend my well-wishes to those across the way who have been affected by the cabinet shuffle. We know that in the current government, there are those in cabinet and there are those working hard to join it. Therefore, congratulations to those who have succeeded.
In particular, I want to extend my best wishes to the former foreign affairs minister. The member has been relentless in his service to Canada. Of course, given my interest in the foreign affairs file, we have had a chance to cross swords quite a bit over the last year and a bit. I know the member is intelligent and deeply thoughtful. His vision for foreign policy was one with which I passionately disagreed, but it must be said that he did articulate a vision for Canadian foreign policy which reflects his values, and it was a vision he developed with sincere motivation. Perhaps more importantly, his ideas about the commitment to the idea of a unified Canadian nation have stood and will stand the test of time. I wish him very well in whatever next steps he takes.
I look forward to debating with the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, although I was hoping that the member for Winnipeg North would get that position so that he would be travelling more and I could finally catch up to him on the word count.
Today we are debating Bill C-36, which is an important piece of legislation about the Statistics Act. The government introduced this legislation on December 7, so we see that we are moving along relatively quickly with the debate and discussion on this. Certainly, it contains some important measures that we are looking at. We have heard different and thoughtful arguments from members throughout the House today. I will start by reviewing some of the substantive content and also what appear to be the objectives of the bill, which I will react to and discuss.
I will say at the outset that my objective in rising today is not to speak definitively for or against the bill, but rather to raise some issues that I think require discussion and consideration in the context of this legislation. Following that, I intend on listening to the ongoing conversation that happens on this legislation and evaluating some of the pros and cons going forward.
With that in mind, certainly for those who are watching or perhaps reading the transcript of the debate afterward, I look forward to hearing substantive feedback from my constituents and others on how they see this debate proceeding with respect to this important legislation.
When most people hear that we are talking about the Statistics Act, they might imagine something fundamentally dry and technical. Of course, there are technical aspects to all legislation that we deal with in the House, but the bill before us is very practical and important for the collection and use of statistics in the real world. Indeed, it is the kind of information gathered by government, the way that the gathering of this information is overseen, and the way that information is shared and used that can influence research, which then touches on every aspect of our lives.
Before being elected, I had the honour of working for an opinion research company. Being involved in this process first-hand I saw all kinds of different ways research and statistical information impacts all sorts of practical aspects of our daily lives.
We live in a world today of big data. Every aspect of our lives is influenced by data, from the choices and prices we see at the store to the social outreach activities of religious institutions. These things are often informed by all kinds of complex calculations involving data.
Certainly, with the advent of the Internet and then of social media, there is more data out there about the world, as well as about us, than would have been imaginable even a short time ago. This use of data has many positive impacts for our lives. It also raises lots of different kinds of questions that perhaps were not at the forefront of our public conversations, again, a relatively short time ago.
The role and approach of government in the collection and use of statistical information is a critically important and very interesting discussion, especially if that information interacts with other data sets that are collected privately. The information gathered by the government can be used as a basis for weighting other kinds of data, everything from social research to medical research, to market research, to political polling. I generally believe that the government should stick to doing the things it does best, but gathering important baseline data is certainly one of those things, and there is a very important role for government involved in that.
As I mentioned, my prior life of working in the private sector, as the vice-president of an opinion research company, involved using data gathered by government as part of the benchmarking for the various research initiatives in which we were involved. The use and also, by the way, the misuse of data, which we often see in the context of politics as well, shapes and will continue to shape many different aspects of our regular daily lives. Of course, the government does not just gather data for the use of others. It also conducts policy research that shapes its own decisions, and I will return to that insofar as how this legislation might interact with policy research as well.
Here again, we can see both the use and misuse of data. I think we would agree in principle, notwithstanding the possibility of misuse, that governments should always try to base their decisions on the best available information and be diligent about identifying and utilizing opportunities to actually gather that information.
With that general introduction about the importance of this area, let me return to the specific provisions of the legislation we are talking about.
Bill C-36, introduced by the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development in December of last year, proposes amendments to the Statistics Act with the government's stated objective of strengthening the independence of Statistics Canada. Part of what we are evaluating is whether it actually would succeed in those objectives, and there are some other things that are, at best, tangentially related to that identified objective.
Under this legislation, we would have the appointment of a chief statistician for a fixed, renewable period of five years, removable only for cause, as identified by the Governor in Council. It also assigns to the chief statistician the powers related to methods, procedures, and operations of Statistics Canada. The minister would still be able to issue directives on statistical programs, but would no longer be able to issue directives on methods, procedures, and operations.
The chief statistician might require that any directive given be made public and in writing before acting on that directive. Therefore, there is still the opportunity for the government to direct a particular statistical program, but there is a level of independence within the general ambit of that in terms of the chief statistician being able to define exactly what kinds of operations, methods, and procedures make the most sense in that context.
This may perhaps not be the direct intent, but the legislation also means that the chief statistician might have authorization to make decisions about where the data is housed. This raises, of course, another set of questions in terms of what this means for the practical use of data.
The chief statistician, in the context of methods, procedures, and operations, would have authority to develop questioning within surveys. That is quite a bit of flexibility to be held independent of the government, and there is a discussion to be had about what the role is for the elected government in terms of the development of those things versus an independent officer like the chief statistician.
I raised this separate issue in questions and comments a number of times. The bill would establish what it calls the Canadian statistics advisory council, which would replace the National Statistics Council.
The new council would comprise 10 members. This council would advise the chief statistician and the minister and focus on the quality of national statistical systems, including the relevance, accuracy, accessibility, and timeliness of statistical information that is produced. As well, as part of its responsibilities, the council would be required to make an annual public report on the state of the statistical system.
The question I would ask the members of the government, and maybe we will hear an answer to this soon, is just what motivates this replacement. This is an opportunity to appoint new people to this body. It would be important, if the government felt there was a need for something new to exist, for it to develop some arguments about what was wrong with the old model and new about the new model. It is the sort of thing that needs to be explained, and so far, I do not think it has explained what the objectives in mind are.
The other thing to note, which has been raised by other colleagues as well, is that the existing National Statistics Council being replaced by the Canadian statistics advisory council has representation from 13 provinces and territories, hence the number of members. We can presume that the new council means that three provinces or territories would lose representation. Again, this speaks to the question of why we are moving from one council to another. Those of us participating in the debate are asking legitimately why this is happening.
The bill no longer requires the consent of respondents to transfer census information to Library and Archives Canada, and that is a point of important discussion in terms of whether that consent should be required. It also repeals the penalty of imprisonment for every survey except the mandatory short-form census. As members of the government have said, I think this particular provision is a common-sense change, that people not be imprisoned for failing to fill out the long-form census. This was a concern we had when we were in government and that we spoke about; again, not doing away with the long-form census but moving back on those mandatory provisions, with a concern about some of these issues, for instance the possibility of imprisonment.
It is worth underlining, in the context of the discussion about mandatory versus not around the long form, that the bill does not change whether the long-form census is mandatory. That specific element is not affected one way or the other by specific provisions of the bill.
Those are the different details we are debating. Some of them have a clearer rationale than others, and hopefully, over the course of this debate, we will hear a little more about those rationales.
On the question of independence with respect to methods, with respect to the types of questions we are being asked, there is an important discussion to be had here, because on the one hand, it is important for the government, which is elected by the people, to be able to get the statistical information it needs to answer policy questions that they feel are important and need to be answered. On the other hand, it certainly makes sense to have experts defining what methods make sense for achieving those objectives.
That is generally the model that is envisioned, but we could also imagine a case where a minister might have an opinion about the kind of method that was most suitable for getting certain kinds of data. We could also imagine possible problems with that.
In the context of this debate, we should think about the government's experience with the MyDemocracy.ca website, because it was an example of the government wading into what it claimed was an exercise in research, in gathering Canadians' opinions. However, we know that there are horrendous problems with the kind of survey that was developed and the way it was developed. It did not actually ask clear, direct questions in terms of people's opinions about specific issues. It did not get clear feedback from people, and there was ambiguity about whether people had to actually give their information or not.
This, perhaps, speaks to the importance of having independence when it comes to developing statistical surveys because it really looks like MyDemocracy.ca was developed, clearly, with certain objectives in mind by the government, which is to obscure the information, to not actually do what seems much more natural and straightforward and obvious, which is to ask people questions about their opinion.
There is a worry, when it comes to an elected government being involved in information-gathering, that there is a loss of independence and that the government seeks to use its desire for certain policy outcomes to obscure the collection of information.
Over the break, I had a constituent write to me about his experience with the MyDemocracy.ca website. It speaks to some of the problems with statistical information, so I want to share what he had to say. His name is Mike, and he said I could share his name because I think this is important information.
He wrote, “I live in Sherwood Park and I received a card to fill out the survey at MyDemocracy.ca. I went to fill it out and ran into a major issue. I spent a bunch of time and when I got to the profile section, which states that it's entirely optional, it would not let me proceed. I called the number and spoke to someone. He told me that it was a failsafe to ensure it was filled out, even though it is optional to fill out that portion, and he suggested that I could put in false information if I did not want my real info in.”
He continues. “This is insane and defeats the entire point of the survey. For a federal government employee to suggest putting false info in is unbelievable. It's clear this a skewed survey. At the end of the day, my opinion was not registered, and something is wrong with that. The deadline for this survey is December 30. I received this card yesterday, December 7. The fact that the government sent this out at the busiest time of year, with only three weeks to contemplate it and with a major flaw that eliminates certain people's responses, is a major problem. Most people will not take the time report this problem. Who knows how many people's opinions have been excluded. This survey has no validity now. I cannot adequately express how troubling this is and makes me wonder what the federal government's real motivation is. Further to the above, the survey questions are very repetitive, and they basically ask the same questions two or three times.”
That is correspondence that I received from a constituent about MyDemocracy.ca. Of course, it is correspondence that has important implications for the electoral reform discussion, but it also has important implications for our examination of what the relationship should be between the elected government and those developing statistical tools. It speaks to the fact that we have a government here that is, I believe, trying to set up a system for gathering information that is designed to produce the kinds of outcomes that it wants, rather than engaging in a more serious, sincere consultation or survey to figure out what either those who want to participate in giving us information think or what a representative sample of Canadians think.
This speaks to the importance of independence. On the other hand, would the change to the Statistics Canada Act actually affect this kind of ad hoc, one-off policy research the government might choose to do?
Maybe we should look at saying that, specifically, when the government has these kinds of political objectives in mind, that is where that independence would be critically needed so we do not run into this sort of false research exercised by the government when it is trying to get specific outcomes it wants in order to justify a course of action that it has already identified. That is not meaningful research. That is certainly not meaningful consultation.
Another point I want to make, just on reflecting on the content of the bill, is that we would be changing the council that provides oversight to the activities with respect to statistics. Again, the old council was the National Statistics Council, or NSC, and we would be moving to the Canadian statistics advisory council.
There is a possibility that this is actually a tactic that compromises independence because it opens up an opportunity for the government to appoint an entirely new council whose members, presumably, would all be appointed by the government, which might not be as effective in exercising oversight as the existing council, with the existing people, with the existing infrastructure that is in place. That transition would create an opportunity for the government to appoint a wholesale group of new people.
Again, we have yet to hear from the government some degree of explanation or rationale with respect to what the objective is, what it would be trying to achieve with this new council.
To summarize, the ongoing discussion on the bill before us is important. There certainly are some important objectives here, but there are also some outstanding questions about what the real objectives are and whether some of these changes would actually achieve the objectives that the government has defined. I look forward to that continuing conversation.