Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Furor Over the Census

I will be the first to admit that higher mathematics, including statistical analysis, is not my forte. However, the almost universal condemnation the Harper Government has received for its decision to scrap compulsory completion of the long census form by 20% of the population has convinced me of the vital role it plays in, among other things, social and economic planning, both of which are essential to Canada's well-being. The matter is of such import that the head of Statistics Canada, Chief Statistician Munir Sheikh, in a lamentably rare demonstration of public integrity, has resigned over the issue. Indeed, the entire census debacle has led me to consider a number of things, not the least of which are a citizen's responsibilities within a democracy.

In an obvious nod to the Tories' reactionary power base, Industry Minister Tony Clement claims justification for ending the compulsory aspect of the long census form by asserting it is too intrusive upon people's privacy, yet another instance of government interference in citizens' lives. In fact, he claims that both Statistics Canada and the Government have fielded many complaints from people about this intrusion. Ironically, statistics do not support his claim, as both the Government and Statistics Canada have received only about three complaints each.

Nonetheless, even if it had received a large volume of complaints, would the Government have been justified in eliminating it? It is this question that got me pondering both the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

The majority of us, I assume, are aware of our rights under The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (especially in light of the fact that several of them were willfully violated by both the Government and the police during the recent G20 in Toronto). However, how often do we consider the obligations citizenship entails, along with the fact that we generally discharge those obligations faithfully, whether we like them or not?

Take, for example, jury duty. I have never known anyone who goes to the mailbox hoping to receive a summons for duty along with its potential to disrupt the normal flow of daily life, sometimes even for months at a time, with little or no financial compensation. Yet in spite of its intrusiveness, we accept it as one of our responsibilities under the law, one that helps to ensure a fair trial for the accused.

Similarly, despite a seemingly almost universal belief that taxes are too high, most of us, again in recognition of their importance in maintaining a society reflective of our values, pay them instead of attempting to defraud the government.

As well, whether they be municipal bylaws requiring us to clean up after our dogs or maintain our property to certain standards, traffic laws that forbid the running of red lights, provincial or federal laws prescribing penalties for criminal acts against property and people, the vast majority of us obey and support these intrusions, in no small measure because, once again, we appreciate their vital role in civil society, where the inclinations of the few do not trump the needs and values of the many.

So to live in society, by definition, requires reasonable limitations on personal freedoms; those limitations, in turn, entail a measure of government intrusion into our lives. However, by pandering to the worst instincts of a minority of the population, the Harper Government is once more undermining values that Canadians hold dear, thereby once again demonstrating its contempt for true democracy and the people it was elected to serve, yet two more reasons that the Conservatives are, in my opinion, unfit to continue to hold public office.

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