Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner, published under the title "Census data should be available to all"
We all know that knowledge is power. This is especially true in politics. Democracy rests on the ideal that all citizens have an equal right to influence government and decisions affecting their lives. When knowledge is distributed unfairly, we lose our equal rights.
The current debate over the census is thus an issue of democracy and fairness. The power of Statistics Canada’s output is not just that it is unbiased, but that it’s available to all. It isn’t free; businesses and even local governments have to pay for detailed info. But because the data is gathered under federal powers and covers a huge sample, it is much more reliable than what private studies provide, and at far lower cost. This information source is a real advantage for Canadian businesses and employers, and very important for good planning at all levels of government. Our future economic growth depends heavily on entrepreneurs and independent local businesses, whose access to cheap, accurate census data helps them compete against the corporate giants.
If the census database is weakened, such as by dropping the mandatory long form, this advantage fades. Instead, knowledge-power will shift to those corporations or entities with the most money to spend on private research.
Sure, there are other ways to gather similar data, such as “mining” existing databases or doing targetted studies. But each method has its own built-in biases and errors. StatsCan’s census is a yardstick, making other studies more accurate and vice versa. And using data mining is actually more intrusive into privacy than the self-filled forms, because it happens secretly and requires access to information that you expect to be held private.
Not only is census data better than privately-gathered data in this manner, it is even better than other government studies. While we are familiar with the ballooning federal deficits, fewer are aware that the government’s spending on market research and opinion surveys is also rising rapidly. Yet results of those studies, paid for with our tax dollars, are often kept hidden from us. They are for the eyes only of the ruling party, giving them significant political advantage.
With accurate census data available to all parties, at least they are on equal information footing for elections. Without it, the advantage falls to he with the deepest pockets. Right now, there is one federal political party which is the most successful at fundraising, allowing it to outspend all the rest on polling and research. That creates a feedback loop which ensures it can better spin messaging to connect with citizen voters, leading to more fundraising, research, and political power. And if you can’t guess which party it is, I’ll give you two more hints: it’s the one that currently controls “non-partisan” but secret government research, and it’s the one that is trying to weaken the census data which is now fairly available to all the other parties.
It’s not too late to tell that party how you feel about knowledge, power, and fairness in our Canadian democracy.
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.