Column

Barbara Amiel

A duty to defy foolish regulations

August 12 1996
Column

Barbara Amiel

A duty to defy foolish regulations

August 12 1996

Barbara Amiel

Column

A duty to defy foolish regulations

I have never met Mr. D. Bruce Petrie, assistant chief statistician at Census Canada, but I am getting to know him. During the past seven weeks, Mr. Petrie and columnist George Jonas have been debating in the pages of The Toronto Sun over the 1996 census questionnaire. Jonas argues that the census is unnecessarily intrusive, that the information cannot be kept confidential and decent citizens should abstain from filling it out. Mr. Petrie, defending, will have no truck with this.

“All of the information is needed,” he states, and “Statistics Canada takes seriously its legal obligation to protect the privacy and confidentiality of every census respondent.” Doubtless he is a good chap, probably likes dogs and children, but as a spokesman for Census Canada he has the smell of a dead soul. That is to say, quoting T. S. Eliot,

“Here is no water, but only rock.”

Readers have been piling in with their views. One couple told how, after dutifully filling out the long version of the census, a neighbor telephoned them to check up on some questions they had missed and in the course of the call casually referred to the amount of money the husband earned.

Turns out that sonorous phrase—“And by law, no one, except employees of Statistics Canada is allowed to see the personal information you provide”—applies to those fellows who get a bit of part-time work every five years when the census comes along.

For my money (not revealed to Census Canada), responsible Canadian citizens should make a bonfire of this census. Now, there may be some who care little whether or not their income, personal living arrangements, sexual orientation and who pays their rent is a private matter. But, on behalf of those who have not yet reached nirvana with Mr. Petrie and the boys, I have a suggestion as to how he can get his pound of flesh without my blood.

I accept that a country needs to do a stocktaking every five years. I even grant Mr. Petrie his 32-page long census form with such questions as the number of bedrooms I have. A country may require such statistics to provide services to citizens not to mention information to all sorts of institutions, organizations, sociology majors—and nosy journalists. But the Gordian knot could be sliced with one change: namely, the census should be anonymous. Why does the government “need” to know the name of the form-filler, the name of the roommate, the name of the illegal lodger you have living in the spare room, the names of your grandparents or your little ménage à trois? What need does this fill in Mr. Petrie’s life? The point is this: if the reason that we are asked to give our names is to avoid duplication, we could simply have a question on the census form asking if anyone listed— grandparent, husband, daughter—has filled out another form. If the answer is yes, please delete that person from the count. Small price, great gain.

The notion that any form remains confidential is a joke. Today’s census may be distributed by tomorrow’s wind.

Anonymity would do a number of things. First, it would make the census material more accurate. One Toronto Sun reader pointed out in a witty letter that he had filled out the extra-long census “with, shall we say, enormous creativity.” No one who cares about principles of privacy and/or personal dignity is going to kowtow to Mr. Petrie. Nor are people going to give details about the smuggled-in Philippine nanny when their name is on the form. Nor will they report an income different to the one they gave Revenue Canada. If your roommate thinks you are divorced but you are only legally separated, chances are you are not going to stir up that nest by telling the truth to Mr. Petrie.

The government wishes to compel people to answer the census and that compels the government to assure us of confidentiality.

Only anonymity can do this. The notion that any form can remain confidential is a joke. Today’s census may be distributed by tomorrow’s wind or go on-line to government departments in the name of national interest.

A second improvement would be to tell people not to respond to any questions that they find too intrusive. For these personal questions, StatsCan could go to anonymous random sampling. Most of our businesses work extremely well with samples from which they can extrapolate. This is true from marketing to political polls. We can ask a thousand people about the nature of their household arrangements, the amount of money they have and its sources, the state of their house and learn more about Canada than we might by causing unwilling participants to divulge incorrect details.

Another viable method might be for Mr. Petrie to take a trip through the looking glass. Instead of concluding that, since the Milk Marketing Board wants to know this or the Status of Women wants to know that, we will include it in the census, the statisticians might ask themselves “Have we got the right to ask citizens that question? Is it within the bounds of decency to do so?” This way of thinking may require brain transplants, but it’s worth a try.

When the 1993 StatsCan survey, The Violence Against Women, came out, there was a hullabaloo. First, its conclusions were extraordinary—virtually every second woman in Canada had been abused. Then, columnist Douglas Fisher revealed that one civil servant alleged that the material had been manipulated by feminists within StatsCan. This argued strongly for a public inquiry. But StatsCan refused. In addition to everything else, Canadians are now dealing with an organization that many no longer trust.

The census people pretend that we must by law fill out their forms. That is not strictly true. The bureaucrat is not the law. He may want me to fill out his blasted forms, but I will do so only if a judge and the courts tell me to do so. Times change, questions change and the law is in constant flux. The good citizen has a duty to challenge foolish or evil statutes. Uncritical obedience is not good citizenship but an act of folly for us all, including Mr. Petrie.