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Why use coercion to collect census data?

I get confused so often, it’s practically a normal state of mind. So many things simply don’t make sense to me.

I get confused so often, it’s practically a normal state of mind. So many things simply don’t make sense to me.

For the longest time, I believed that was because I lacked the intellectual capacity to grasp the intricacies of many high-minded arguments. I listened and I read prodigiously on the issues I was confused about and had enough interest in. But the simple solutions that occurred to me were never discussed by pundits, think tanks, politicians or letter writers to the Globe and Mail.

This led me to believe the problem rested in my deficient intellect, rather than the promulgations of my “betters.”

But then came this summer and l’Affaire Census. Has there ever been an issue that has had so little resonance with the public and yet has garnered such widespread coverage before? OK, this being Canada, I’m sure there has, but this a census for God’s sake; we’re not talking about scrapping health care here.

On Aug. 11, the federal government announced its intention to, in Industry Minister Tony Clements’ words, “introduce legislation this fall to remove threats of jail time for persons refusing to fill out the 2011 census and all mandatory surveys administered by the federal government.”

This seemed pretty innocuous and something I personally applauded. I don’t know about you, but threats aren’t the greatest way to get me to do something.

But, since then, there have been more than 8,000 news stories on the census – way more articles and commentaries than on our health care system and only a smidgen less than articles and commentaries on the economy. Come on, people, where are your priorities?

Granted, certain organizations do very well parsing the accumulated – and free – data to support their pre-defined conclusions, so it is only reasonable to expect they would be up in arms if its “reliability” stands be eroded. High value (i.e. the fees these firms charge clients) is placed on the reliability of data derived from the census.

Governments at all levels, charities, think tanks, NGOs, businesses, and others all play the census game to maximize opportunities to increase either their profits, or funding for “new or improved” programs.

When the head of one of our human rights commissions - in this case, Barbara Hall of the Ontario commission - comes out in support of the census, I have a natural tendency to run for the hills. I never really thought of the census or the controversy surrounding it until Hall said she supported it. For those familiar with Hall’s tendency to favour limits on personal freedom in the name of personal rights, it should surprise no one that coercion would be fine with her.

As for the number of letters to the editor in various publications, it seems obvious, at least to me, that many of the writers were less pro-coercive census than anti-Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Legal authorities – including governments, police, the courts, human rights commissions – often use threats and intimidation to achieve their aims. After all, it’s easier to threaten to throw the bums in jail than to try to persuade through strength of argument or other non-coercive means.

Now, I’m just asking . . . but isn’t the argument over the census less about the census itself than about how the results are compiled? The government wasn’t talking about doing away with the census, only doing away with using intimidation to get the results.

Maybe it’s time to look at this issue differently.

Let’s all agree the data accumulated by the census are important and start focusing instead on the tactics used in their accumulation.

I have a simple solution. Why not pay people for their time in filling out the long form? As soon as Statistics Canada receives a completed long-form, they can put a cheque for, say, $125 in the mail.

The cost could easily be covered by charging all those organizations, including provincial and municipal governments, for use of the data. Right now, the only charge Statistics Canada imposes for data is if someone asks the agency to analyze the numbers to answer a specific question.

I’m sure even Barbara Hall would have no reason to object. After all, if the data are so important, it must be worth something.

Is that solution too simple?

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