Mr. Speaker, I am privileged to be speaking to Bill S-18, an act to amend the Statistics Act, which was passed by the Senate.
As a member of the access to information, privacy and ethics committee, it is important that I speak to this bill, in particular on its relation to the privacy rights that exist in Canada.
For the most part I am in support of this bill as it currently stands. The bill will allow, as has been said throughout the debate, for the immediate release of the 1911 census records currently in its 94th year with Statistics Canada. It provides unrestricted access to personal census records after 92 years for each of the censuses between 1911 and 2001 inclusive. It will create a new confidentiality clause. Canadians for the first time will be asked to decide whether or not they will permit the public to view their records 92 years after the census date.
I have reviewed the concerns with my colleague in the Senate, Senator Comeau, who has opposed this bill in the Senate. As a member of a committee that has been reviewing privacy legislation, I share his concerns and want to express these concerns today.
I will begin by speaking about the census forms as they currently are written and have been for years. On the census forms themselves is written:
Also by law, Statistics Canada must protect the confidentiality of the personal information you provide. Our employees, including census takers, are personally liable to fines or imprisonment should they fail to protect the confidentiality of your information.
This is signed by the chief statistician. By stating this, the chief statistician is ensuring that the information Canadians provide on census forms will never be released to the public and the privacy of the information given is ultimately protected.
Bill S-18 would amend section 18.1 by allowing for the information in each of the censuses between 1910 and 2005 to be no longer subject to the protection from the public 92 years after the census was taken. Thus, as I have suggested in questions to my colleagues, I foresee a problem with this amendment.
The chief statistician has promised to Canadians on census forms that all data will be protected. Canadians believed that when they were giving this sensitive data that it would be kept confidential and their privacy would be protected. By allowing this part of the amendment to be passed as is, Canadians would see this as a breaking of the promise.
There is also the problem of having census records released after the 92 year mark. Why this magical number? Why 92 years?
In Great Britain, census records are kept confidential for 100 years. In the United States, census records are kept confidential for 72 years. In 1910, I can understand that most Canadians were not living into their nineties, in which case the release of sensitive data would not be a problem. Yet today many are living well into their nineties and some live to be well over 100 years. I understand why my colleague, Senator Comeau, has had a hard time with allowing information to be released after 92 years when first, those who took part in the census were promised that it would not be released, and second, that many of those who took part in the 1918 census are still alive.
In the Senate Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, both the chief statistician and the Privacy Commissioner spoke to the committee members regarding the bill. It was made clear from the evidence given that neither had a problem with Bill S-18 and that they were both in favour of its quick passage.
When asked by Senator Comeau if a promise made on the census form would be broken by passing this bill, the chief statistician explained that in good conscience, he signed his name to that promise with a full understanding of the law as he understood it and as all his predecessors were advised to understand it at the time. He went further to say that ambiguity existed that they were not aware of at the time.
Without this bill bringing forward the amendment to add section 18.1, there would be a high probability that this case would go before the courts.
The Privacy Commissioner also had an opportunity to speak to this bill before the Senate. The Privacy Commissioner shares in my colleague's concerns with respect to the privacy rights of Canadians, yet she believes there is a series of public issues that outweigh this concern. The commissioner stated:
The legislators at the time did not foresee this, and so all of a sudden we came into this grey area in which, through a series of different legislative initiatives, the issue of what date any ultimate release would be contemplated and the information it would give to Canadians was not addressed.
With regard to the second part of Bill S-18, which allows for Canadians to consent to the release of information 92 years after the census, the Privacy Commissioner feels Canada has gone one step further to ensure the rights of its citizens by giving an option on the census forms to the release of the data. Only if one marks yes to the question will personal information be made public 92 years after the next census, which would be in 2006.
We have undertaken in Canada to ensure that the rights of all Canadians are protected. We have gone even further to guarantee that Canadians enjoy their right to privacy. We have a Privacy Act and a Privacy Commissioner in place to oversee these rights. I understand the Privacy Commissioner approved this bill as is and believes that the privacy rights of all will be protected. It is my belief, however, that this bill, the way it is currently written, goes against the protection of Canadians' privacy by allowing the release of previous census information.
In 1991 an expert panel was convened by the federal government to examine access to historical records. The panel concluded that no perpetual guarantee of confidentiality rested with the census records and that the passage of time diminished concerns about individual privacy. In 2004 a Federal Court ruled the care of control of the 1911 census records rested with the chief statistician.
Thus, there is a range of opinions regarding the legality of confidentiality with respect to census records. Even the Department of Justice has changed its stance on the matter over the last six years. Bill S-18 attempts to find a balance between the public good of releasing records and the private right to confidentiality.
The chief statistician believes this bill strikes an effective balance in ensuring the effective protection of the interests of the three major groups involved in this issue, statisticians, genealogists and historians, and those for whom privacy issues are the primary concern.
I recognize that there has been and will continue to be an intense lobbying effort by genealogists to get this legislation passed quickly. With the 2006 census quickly approaching, Statistics Canada would like to have this bill passed quickly so that it can begin to educate Canadians about their confidentiality options. In addition, the chief statistician will not release the 1911 census records until the bill is passed.
Although I support the release of the 1911 census as soon as possible, I only support the release of the basic tombstone information, such as the name, age and date of birth, from Canadian census records from 1911 to 2001, inclusive, after 92 years. Thus, Bill S-18 would need to be amended to reflect this.
It is also important that both the chief statistician and the Privacy Commissioner appear before the committee that will be examining this bill to further delve into the assurance that those rights of Canadians will ultimately be protected.
I understand the importance for family historians and genealogists to have historical information, but I must also stand up for the privacy rights of those who have taken part in past censuses. When completing the census over the past 100 years, many Canadians were left with the impression that their answers were going to be held by Statistics Canada in absolute confidence, never to be publicly released. This promise must somehow be protected.
With respect to the new confidentiality clause outlined in this bill that will be included in all future censuses allowing Canadians to decide whether or not to make their information public after 92 years, I will support that. I believe, however, that Statistics Canada should review the type of information it collects in both the long and the short form questionnaires. It is important that Canadians not feel forced to disclose information that is of a personal nature that would be embarrassing to a family after 92 years.