The long, and short of census

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Officially, I am a five-foot-five-and-one-half inch Canadian male who weighs in at 135 pounds. I had always thought I was taller than that -- the driver's licence I used to have measured me at five-foot-eight inches, which I cheerfully pretended to be -- it's an official government document, after all -- until I met my present wife, whose driver's licence also said that she was five-foot-eight. She is noticeably taller than me by about five inches, so clearly a mistake was made somewhere along the line in the Department of Weights and Measures.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/08/2010 (4379 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Officially, I am a five-foot-five-and-one-half inch Canadian male who weighs in at 135 pounds. I had always thought I was taller than that — the driver’s licence I used to have measured me at five-foot-eight inches, which I cheerfully pretended to be — it’s an official government document, after all — until I met my present wife, whose driver’s licence also said that she was five-foot-eight. She is noticeably taller than me by about five inches, so clearly a mistake was made somewhere along the line in the Department of Weights and Measures.

Perhaps it has something to do with the transition imposed on the nation by a former Liberal government from the imperial to the metric system of measuring people, in the process of which either I lost two-and-one-half inches, or my wife gained double that in centimetres. In the interests of domestic tranquility, we won’t talk about ounces, pounds or kilograms here, although it is worth noting that, although I am allegedly shorter than I was then, I am also five pounds lighter. Marriage does diminish a man.

The transition from the imperial system to the metric never did make much sense in the Canadian context unless you look at it as one more example of Liberals’ cocking a snook at the Americans to no apparent purpose. And like most things that governments do, not only did it make little sense, but the bureaucrats managed to mess it up as well.

Most adults who learned the imperial system in school use it still to weigh and measure their spouses and anything else they might treasure. Even kids who went through school learning nothing but metric are mixed up about it. Ask them how tall they are and they will tell you in feet and inches; ask them how much they weigh and they will lie in pounds and ounces. It is doubtful that any Canadian ever boasted that he is almost two metres tall — six-foot sounds so much better.

So if the government can’t even teach captive kids to think in metric, it’s probably just as well that it doesn’t ask us our height or weight on any of its various census forms. Half of us would lie, and the other half would get it wrong because they can’t think in metric. Most of us could end up in jail for wrongly answering — for whatever reason — questions that are none of the government’s business in the first place, which is true of much of what the census asks us to reveal. How many bathrooms are in your jail cell is not really a necessary question, but then neither is how many bathrooms there are in your house any of the government’s business.

It is probably useful for Ottawa to know how many Canadians there are still alive and kicking, where they live and how much they earn, but the first two questions can be answered with the stroke of a pen and a postage stamp, and information on the third can be happily supplied by the revenuers.

Statistics Canada, in fact, doesn’t need to know most of what it wants to know about you. But having all those facts makes for pretty good business. Industry Minister Tony Clement had to carry the can when the census issue blossomed into a scandal with the resignation of Statscan chief Munir Sheikh and Prime Minister Stephen Harper was too busy to answer questions. Clement was loudly derided in the media and by opposition politicians when he suggested that most of the people and organizations who opposed abolishing the compulsory long-form census were those who profited from the government’s information gathering. Information that the government collects is information non-governmental organizations don’t have to pay to gather themselves. It is a gold-mine of personal information that Canadians have no choice but to supply and can be freely used by Statscan’s clients.

On this issue, the only people who appear to be speaking for Canadians are federal Conservative politicians. The Tories are exactly right in voicing concerns — and acting on concerns — about the imposition that the census makes on individual privacy.

Other countries, the Europeans in particular, have found that a census is inefficient and obsolete and either ended it or are moving to abolish it. The methods they are using to replace it, unfortunately, may be far more intrusive. The federal government may have found the middle ground, the reasonable solution, in a census form that may ask unreasonable questions but does not require Canadians to answer them under penalty of law. No one, except possibly me, needs to know how much my wife weighs, but in the interests of almost full disclosure, I can tell you that she weighs less now than when I met her. That is more than you, or the government, needs to know about that subject or almost anything else about me and my house, and the census should respect that.

tom.oleson@freepress.mb.ca

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