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Bring on the census debate

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THE Great Census Debate now rests in the hands of Premier Greg Selinger. The last chance of saving the rich data collected from the mandatory long-form census, is a revolt by the provinces. The first ministers meet next week in Winnipeg, where Selinger will be the host and chairman of the meeting.

If the first ministers unanimously support the mandatory long-form, sent to just 20 per cent of Canadian households, then the federal Conservatives may be forced into a compromise.

But such is the force of the Conservatives' objections to the document that only unanimity among the premiers is likely to keep the census intact.

As a result, Canada will lose the accurate, rich, comparable data about its people that it has collected for more than a century. The Conservatives maintain a voluntary form will be good enough. Statisticians, church and social groups and historians all disagree.

Most provinces want the mandatory long-form to remain.

Both Alberta's Premier Ed Stelmach and British Columbia's Gordon Campbell are in the federal Conservatives' camp. Asking Selinger to get them to change their minds is asking a lot. It would be a coup if he could pull it off.

But should he? The country is enmeshed in one of the best ideological debates I have ever seen. It's a rare event and should be cherished.

It's about which rights the government has to collect information about us and how those rights should be balanced against the needs of society. That balance goes to the heart of parliamentary democracy. Other critical issues have been raised along the way: not least, the doctrine of ministerial responsibility and the thorny question of when a civil servant has to decide he can no longer serve his masters. Munir Sheikh resigned as head of Statistics Canada, the organization that conducts the census, because Industry Minister Tony Clement misrepresented Sheikh's position. Why, you might ask, is Clement still in place?

But, should the government collect, with the threat of prosecution and potential imprisonment, detailed information about you and your family, whether or not it promises to keep it confidential?

When I was in my teens on an outing in the family car in the U.K., we were stopped at a police roadblock. The police were searching for some criminal. The young constable who poked his head into the driver's side window asked my dad where he was going. Much to the embarrassment of my mother, my dad replied that the constable had no right to ask him where he was going: where he was going was his business and his business alone and not the business of the state.

Britain has since slipped into being a country watched everywhere by security cameras and I doubt whether anyone now would think twice about the intrusion of asking a motorist where he was going.

For my father, though, the principle was important. Only by objecting to the encroaching surveillance of the state would we protect our liberties. He had fought a war, he told me, over exactly these issues. The police constable did not need to know where we were going and he shouldn't have asked.

Is the long-form census a similar intrusion? Does the state need to know how many bedrooms you have, whether you or a family member has mental health problems and so on? Is it at all relevant that a tiny proportion of those asked to fill in the mandatory long-form have complained? The answer to that is: no. That the citizenry does not feel the need to complain about the demands of the state only indicates the citizenry is complacent, not that it agrees with what is going on.

The important issue is whether the information is worth the intrusion. I would say, yes, it is.

We are a changing nation with one of the most diverse populations in the world. The long-form census lets us know accurately, how we are doing. It helps us deliver social and medical programs. In the balance of the intrusion of the state and the needs of the public, the mandatory long-form census falls in the category of necessary evil. The Conservatives don't think so. We should thank them for letting us know where they stand and raising the debate. We can decide whether to support that stand at the next election.

For once, we have been presented with a startling insight into how our leaders see our democracy. Civil liberties are important, yet too often we take them for granted.

Whether Selinger brings the premiers together or not, he can do the country a service by giving his take on the very issues I have just raised.

Nicholas Hirst is CEO of Winnipeg-based television and film producer Original Pictures Inc.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 29, 2010 A11

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