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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2010

Social Programs Victimized by Census Change

By Penni Stewart
Summer, the season of madcap antics, went wild this year with Industry Minister Tony Clement’s quiet announcement, one Satur­day afternoon in June, that the federal government was dropping the mandatory long-form census in favour of a voluntary survey. So much has been written about the impact of this decision on the ability to obtain robust and reliable information on key issues like immigration, family and household structure, racialization, disability, demography and employment that it needs no comment. It’s hard to think of another policy change that has so united groups across the political spectrum, from bankers, small business and market researchers to provincial governments, city planners, religious groups, the Canadian Association of Statisti­cians, university and college educators, NGOs, and even two (both now former) chief statisticians. CAUT has been in the forefront of the protest.

Recent census information has been used to provide samples for two important “post-censal” surveys — based on re-interviews with individuals identified as having some particular characteristic. The Par­ti­cipation and Activity Limitation Survey is the only systematic source of information on persons with disabilities. It has been discontinued. Similarly, the Aboriginal Peoples Survey (APS) provides the only data on the social and economic conditions of Aboriginal people living on and off reserves. While it will continue, apparently, Aboriginals living in urban locations will be disproportionately undercounted by the changes to the census, undermining the APS.

More generally, the long-form census is the primary source of information on the demographic and socio-economic characters of racialized Canadians. Behind the rhetoric of privacy, the census cancellation seems to represent an explicit effort to undermine the measurement of inequality across the board, not only regarding racialization and disability, but also inequality related to community, gender, immigration and language.

A number of national surveys supplying unique data have been or are about to be cut. In 2009, the Workplace and Employee Survey, a yearly survey of employers on job vacancies, benefits and pension was discontinued. And there is no commitment to regular studies of wealth, which it turns out is much more unequally distributed than income.

Dropping the mandatory long census is driven ideologically by a government that has become known for its secretive nature and desire to control information and which deeply distrusts Statistics Canada and its data. Writing on The Mark’s blog on July 23, Paul Saurette argues that by reducing the amount of available information and by making the data that is collected less credible, the government has set out to create barriers to the work of social critics. Destroying the comparability of the census back to 1971, it will be impossible to track social and structural changes over time.

Saurette argues that: “The less visible these structural issues are, the less likely it is that advocacy groups will be able to persuade Canadians that government programs are necessary. The less government programs seem necessary, the less government itself seems valuable. And the less government itself seems valuable, the more like­ly it is that conservative market-oriented values and principles can flourish.”

The census debacle is the culmination of a strategy that began with the 2006 cuts to programs dedicated to gender equality, like the $5 million cut from the research budget of Status of Woman Canada and the closure of 12 of their 16 offices, and the drastic reduction to the court challenges program, which funded human rights cases. Also terminated in 2006 was funding for the Law Reform Commission of Canada, an independent body established in 1971 to keep federal laws up to date and analyze key public policy issues.

In 2008 there were cuts to the Canadian Council on Social Development, the Childcare Resource and Research Unit, the National Association of Women and the Law, and the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund. A year later, public policy, social justice and advocacy groups felt the pinch, beginning with the removal of funding for the Canadian Policy Research Networks and of Kairos, an organization with a mandate to advance human rights and training around the globe that had been funded by the Canadian International Development Agency since 1973.

Promoting and defending rights became even harder this year with the closure of human rights offices in Toronto, Halifax and Vancouver. Funds to a dozen organizations devoted to promoting gender and racial equality rights were slashed, including the venerable Canadian Council for International Co-operation, the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation and the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

Even more chilling is the now openly expressed belief that speaking critically about government policies leads to quick retribution. This was brought home by a recent Globe and Mail article in which the Prime Minister’s Office had apparently reacted to a play included in Toronto’s SummerWorks Theatre Festival, which receives funding from three levels of government, saying they were “extremely disappointed” that federal money was being used to fund plays that “glorify terrorism.”

We need to fight this erosion of civil rights and democratic insti­tutions. Recently, CAUT joined Voices-Voix, a new coalition of organizations working to defend our democratic space. The group has released a declaration that asserts, “Since 2006, the government of Canada has systematically undermined democratic institutions and practices, and has eroded the protection of free speech, and other fundamental human rights.”

The declaration calls on the federal government to respect the right to freedom of opinion and expression, to act in accordance with Canada’s democratic traditions and values and to be more transparent.