September 23, 2017

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Taking a census from behind the bushes

It is kind of hard to determine exactly how many people live in my house. It's always been a hard thing to figure out, ever since we moved there about 20 years ago. The traffic going to and fro scandalizes the neighbours a little bit I think. I sometimes see them peeking out from behind their curtains and one hides behind her bushes to watch what's going on.

One can hardly blame them. At the moment, I think the population of the Oleson household is either four or five, but it might go to six in the next couple of weeks. In the past it has been as high as eight or nine and occasionally has sunk to as low as two. It's kind of a like a country with porous borders and a loose immigration policy -- who knows how many people actually live there?

This makes it difficult to buy groceries and schedule shower times in an organized way. You need to know how many people are waiting to be fed and how the hot water can be rationed to do it efficiently. As it is, food just vanishes and the bathroom is always busy.

I could, perhaps, take a census if I could gather everyone together, but that's not easy and I suspect that they would refuse to fill out the forms or just lie if they did. Everyone who lives there is a bit anti-authoritarian.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/7/2010 (2625 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It is kind of hard to determine exactly how many people live in my house. It's always been a hard thing to figure out, ever since we moved there about 20 years ago. The traffic going to and fro scandalizes the neighbours a little bit I think. I sometimes see them peeking out from behind their curtains and one hides behind her bushes to watch what's going on.

One can hardly blame them. At the moment, I think the population of the Oleson household is either four or five, but it might go to six in the next couple of weeks. In the past it has been as high as eight or nine and occasionally has sunk to as low as two. It's kind of a like a country with porous borders and a loose immigration policy — who knows how many people actually live there?

This makes it difficult to buy groceries and schedule shower times in an organized way. You need to know how many people are waiting to be fed and how the hot water can be rationed to do it efficiently. As it is, food just vanishes and the bathroom is always busy.

I could, perhaps, take a census if I could gather everyone together, but that's not easy and I suspect that they would refuse to fill out the forms or just lie if they did. Everyone who lives there is a bit anti-authoritarian.

That is one of the problems with any kind of census. As an article elsewhere in today's paper (FYI, Page H11) from The Economist points out, 0.7 per cent of Britons who filled out their last government census form claimed to be Jedi Knights by religion.

The Economist also points out that governments are increasingly turning away from the formal census as a useful tool for demographics and all the social planning that devolves from that. "It is a global trend," the magazine writes, driven by the belief that the traditional census is outdated and, in fact, no longer really useful.

Several European countries have abandoned it in favour of gathering information from electronic databases that are more extensive, more accessible and reliable and easier to update. They are also, of course, more intrusive and more comprehensive — in order to lie, or even to protest, you have to be asked a question first. The electronic count does not require that.

Germany will join them and do its next census electronically, and Britain is considering going electronic after its next head count. Canada, too, is considering changes to the way it conducts its census, but it is less clear why Ottawa wants to do that and it has caused something of a political storm in the country with opposition parties, social-welfare groups and organizations such as the Canadian Medical Association protesting the Conservative government's plan to make the long-form census, which asks many questions, some of them quite intimate, a voluntary thing rather the compulsory civic duty it is right now.

Canadians who refuse to say how many bathrooms they have in their house can go to jail, where the bathrooms are not nearly as nice, under the present "democratic" system. The new system would make that information voluntary, whereas the electronic system would simply consult something like the real estate ads.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government claims that the change is motivated by concerns for Canadians' privacy. "Why is it mandatory to tell the government how many bedrooms are in your house," wonders one worried Tory MP.

That's a good question, but it is not the question that needs to be asked. Canadians themselves don't seem all that concerned about their privacy, although they should be. They find the long census form an annoyance — it takes a while to fill out — but not really a worry. The federal privacy commissioner has received only three complaints in the last decade.

That's because Canadians "worried about government intrusion" aren't likely to go to the government to complain about it, says Industry Minister Tony Clement, who is riding shotgun on this new initiative.

That might well be true, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, as Freud said, and the Conservatives' self-declared, self-defined war on the "nanny state," as welcome as a real such war might be, just rings false here.

The federal government needs the information contained in the long census form as much as the social scientists, health researchers or anyone else who needs to know Canadian demographics to do their job.

A voluntary long-form census will almost certainly result in a lower response — these things aren't exactly a fun way to pass a winter's evening — and less information.

Why does the government want less information about us? Well, it's hard to believe that this is pure benevolence. The question that needs to be asked is: Are the Conservatives trying to have it both ways, conducting a curtailed traditional census while at the time using the European-style electronic snooping to gather the missing information and more? Is Mr. Harper, under the guise of ridding us of the nanny state, simply distracting our attention from the fact that he is watching us from behind the bushes?

tom.oleson@freepress.mb.ca

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