Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to speak to Bill S-13. This bill has been a long time coming. Members of the Canadian Alliance have answered hundreds of letters and have received many petitions concerning the release of census data over the last three years.
My colleague, the member for Edmonton Southwest, is the official opposition critic for census records and his offices receive letters almost daily on this issue since it left the Senate. I would like to pay tribute to the hard work of my colleague from Edmonton Southwest on this issue, as well as my colleagues from Calgary Southeast and Peace River who have also had a great deal of input and hard work on this bill and on this issue as well.
The Canadian Alliance voted unanimously in favour of the motion by the member for Calgary Southeast which stated:
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.
The member for Peace River shepherded this issue through our caucus when it first came up in 2001.
As we all know, census records are an invaluable source of information for those conducting historical or genealogical research. In fact, the 1906 census, the document which gave rise to this bill, was a special census that was conducted only in the prairie provinces after the massive influx of immigrants at the turn of the century. The release of the 1906 census generated more than four million hits in the first 12 days it was online. The same story holds true for the 1901 census, which received more than 50 million hits for its first six months online.
The problem, as I understand it, is the nature of the census data or one of the issues that we are bringing forward. Statistics Canada strives to protect the integrity of the information it gathers. In Canada we have kept census information secret for a long period of time after the data is initially collected. We have kept census information secret for 92 years on average. That is 28 years longer than in the United States and eight years shorter than in the United Kingdom. In my opinion, 92 years is a reasonable period of time to keep information under wraps, so to speak.
At the turn of the century some ambiguities were raised as to how long such information should be kept from public release. According to Statistics Canada, census takers were given conflicting instructions on how to collect census data. It may have led some Canadians to believe that their information would be kept secret forever. Obviously that is not the case.
This situation was clarified when confidentiality and disclosure regulations that had existed for previous census operations were enforced by law for the 1911 census. The Canadian commissioner of privacy and a legal opinion received by Statistics Canada have led some groups to push that census records be kept secret for 20 years longer, a total of 112 years, due to the provision in Canadian law to keep personal records secret until 20 years after the death of an individual.
Bill S-13 attempts to reach a compromise between concerns for privacy and the covenant agreed to by Statistics Canada and the Canadian public through the census. It was originally proposed that this bill be passed in a single sitting. The Canadian Alliance, the official opposition, could not agree to such a course of action for three reasons that I will now touch on.
First, we are seeking clarity concerning the conditional release of information. Second, we would like to discuss the creation of a new bureaucracy and new regulations to police the conditional release of information. Third and finally, I want to debate the appropriate passage of time before census information should be released to the public.
As I understand it, the only information that will be released after 92 years is what is often referred to as tombstone information, basic information: name, address, age, date of birth, marital status, sex and occupation. At the turn of the century this scope of information comprised the bulk of the census. However some interesting questions have been asked over the years, ranging from the mental state of members of one's family to the type of private company one keeps, questions that understandably Statistics Canada would like to treat gently and that Canadians have concerns about in terms of the privacy issues.
One has to wonder if the questions that need to be treated differently need to be asked at all. That is a point of debate as well. Nevertheless, the Alliance is hoping to clarify why there would only be a partial release of information, especially since researchers would be required to fill out an application in order to access this information.
That brings me to my second point. The lion's share of this bill deals with section 17 of the Statistics Act which governs secrecy. As I understand it, the information released after 92 years would be reviewed by those who fill out an application to view the records. There would be two separate sets of researchers allowed to access census records after 92 years, genealogists and historians.
Genealogists would be required to fill out a very simple form and their qualifications, to the best of my knowledge, would not be reviewed. Historians, however, would have to be vouched for. According to the draft regulations proposed to cabinet, persons applying to conduct historical research would be required to submit an application on their own behalf accompanied by a form from a list of people who have “assessed the public and scientific value of the research”. The people who can approve historical research are presidents or faculty deans of universities, senior elected community officials such as a mayor or a reeve, president of an ethnic or cultural association, a member of Parliament, a senator, a member of the provincial legislature, senior clergy, a native chief, a chief librarian, provincial archivist, the national archivist of Canada and the chief statistician of Canada. Clearly, this list of people who can approve access to census information should be included in the bill.
Taking a member of Parliament as an example, many people may ask about our qualifications in assessing the public and scientific value of proposed research. Members of Parliament are busy, as are their staff members. In addition to being seen as unqualified by some in this regard, it could take us a long time to respond to requests from historical researchers which may affect their research.
Further to the release of information, there is a section of the bill which states that with the 2006 census, those people filling out the census would have to give their consent at the time they fill out the census forms for the information to be disclosed after 112 years. This section is a bit puzzling. It is the subject about which our critic's office has received the most amount of mail, with concerns about this particular aspect of the bill.
Will there be a campaign to educate people about this clause? Is it a one time offer? Can a person go back and change his or her decision? Who is allowed to check the consent box for children? How many people does the government expect may opt out of a public release? If more than 50% of Canadians choose to keep their census records secret until the end of the time period, how would that skew the other 49% of records that are released? How much would it cost Canadians to administer and keep these records secret? These are all questions that need to be answered. They are not clearly laid out in the bill in its current state.
Finally, we wonder why we need to create a new bureaucracy to police this endeavour of trying to obtain access to census information. A form is being created for those who wish to conduct research on census information. As I have outlined, that could create a whole new level of bureaucracy.
Reading the speech from Liberal Senator Lorna Milne, the champion of the bill, she states, “The government does not want to make it difficult to conduct historical and genealogical research”. If that were the case, the government would not be imposing new and complicated procedures in order to access census information. It is my experience that regulations and forms make things more difficult, not easier.
As the opposition, we therefore must ask, has the government conducted a cost benefit analysis on these new regulations? Does the government have any idea how many people would be applying to review these records? How is the government going to police the use of these records? Will there be fines or jail time for those who misuse their privileges?
The Canadian Alliance will be proposing amendments to this bill. Many of them will focus on the questions that have been raised in my speech today and which have been championed by my colleague from Edmonton.
One of the most important questions facing the House is how much time is appropriate to respect the privacy rights of those who have completed census forms. Today the average life expectancy of Canadian males is 75 years and of females is 81 years. In all likelihood our personal information will not be made available until long after we are gone.
The Canadian Alliance believes that 92 years of secrecy is sufficient to protect the integrity of census records. At the same time, we do not belittle the privacy concerns of Canadians and the Privacy Commissioner on the subject. In fact the Canadian Alliance is very concerned about the breadth and scope of the current census forms. Many of us know people who have heard from constituents who feel the long form of the census asks for too much personal information.
Statistics Canada is the depository of highly sensitive and private information of private citizens and corporations. Many individuals and corporations believe that Statistics Canada collects too much information these days and then, because of the sheer volume of information, is delayed in releasing analysis in a timely manner, but that is a debate for another day.
I want to close my comments by thanking members for the opportunity to discuss these issues. I realize it has taken a long time to create this bill. Many consultations have taken place. I cannot support this bill in its current form unless it is amended and many of the questions that I have addressed and the official opposition has addressed are answered in the process.