January 2011

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The CivicAccess list from time to time has some really good discussions.  As of late there have been a couple of great ones.  They are honest and often bring up issues that require some external expertise.

The question of race questions in the former long-form Canadian census was the latest.  It was inspired by comments associated with the NYTimes map – Mapping America: Every City, Every Block posted to the list.  The list threads on this topic can be read here.

Debra Thompson was invited to read the threads and to respond.  Debra wrote The Politics of the Census: Lessons from Abroad in the Journal of Canadian Public Policy as a response to the recent cuts to the Canadian census and won the McMenemy Prize for her paper in the Canadian Journal of Political Science: Is Race Political?

Here is Debra’s Response:

That type of argument (race is dangerous, we shouldn’t be asking a question on it anyway) is actually pretty common – and came up back in 1996 when the question was  first put on the census. Unsurprisingly, it’s more often the white majority that claims race is dangerous, rather than racial minorities who largely understand that race is socially constructed, but carries consequences nonetheless. The basic fact of the matter is that we have a range of policies that depend on accurate census data. Yes, employment equity is one of those policies. Yes, it has its problems – especially in that it can’t account for variation in discrimination within the population we call “visible minority”. Some visible minorities are clearly discriminated against in a variety of socio-economic indicators – housing, employment, services, etc. Most often, these are Aboriginal peoples, Black Canadians and some Asian population groups. Other VM groups don’t necessarily need the policy in order to ensure their labour force representation is equitable. But can you imagine a Black-only or Aboriginal-only employment equity policy? It just wouldn’t fly.

The debates over whether or not a question *should* be in the census is more often than not a debate about the efficiency and equity of affirmative action-type policies. In my opinion, these debates are very important, but should take place elsewhere. I personally think employment equity is a good idea. It means the state has a positive obligation to promote racial equality. We know that the marketplace won’t do this on its own. It also sends important signals about citizenship and social justice as important priorities for the Canadian state. I would also tell critics that our employment equity policy is actually very very weak. VERY weak. It has little by way of actual monitoring, the courts have rarely backed it up, and it doesn’t compel the private sector at all. If our policy was stronger, we would have seen more VMs in the public service by now. Yet, if you look at the data, women have almost achieved representative parity, and VMs are still very much underrepresented – not nearly as badly as persons with disabilities, but still.

No matter the pros and cons of this legislation, it’s the law of the land. And we can’t make this law work properly without accurate data. In the 1980s before there was a “race question”, StatsCan used the ethnic origin question and other proxies to determine which respondents were VMs. But it was highly problematic – think about my father’s family, for example. We came to Canada in the 1860s, via the Underground Railroad. We’ve been here for a very long time. (This is why I find it so frustrating when white Canadians ask me, “no, where are you REALLY from?” I’m from HERE.) In response to the ethnic origin question, what would Dad write? “Black” is a racial group, not an ethnic group. But to put “Canadian,” “American,” or “British,” as Dad might have done, wouldn’t capture the fact that he’s black. StatsCan also had the same types of problems with other groups – Jamaicans and Indians (from India) who put their ethnic origins as “British,” Haitians who put theirs as “French”. If you want to measure race, you need a question on race.

Canada is also not alone in this regard. Over 60% of countries in the world have a question on nationality/ethnicity/race, though they use diverse conceptualizations of what these terms mean. It’s also been proven time and time again by places like the United States and Great Britain that having a question on race in the census is actually helpful if the society’s ultimate goal is racial equality. Canada has had this question on its census since 1996. And we’re not more divided than before, race riots haven’t broken out (though there are some places in Canada where racial minorities are living so far below the poverty line that I wouldn’t be surprised if they did), and our kitten-hugging version of multiculturalism – high on rhetoric, low on actual results in terms of lessing racial disadvantage – is still intact. So, you see, having a question on race isn’t about making Canadian society more divided. It’s about making it more equal. I think that’s a pretty important goal.

Peggy and John are keeping up the good work on the Save the Census Campaign and here is their latest update:

The census in the news:

Save the Census’ is on Facebook and Twitter @savethecensus:

Join our new Facebook page and Twitter page, where you can find the most up-to-date information from the Campaign, including media coverage and any other important correspondence.  Please circulate to friends and other supporters!

Continuing our battle takes—surprise—money! If you would like to donate to the Save the Census campaign please visit www.SavetheCensus.ca.

Find out more at www.savethecensus.ca, datalibre.ca, and www.ccsd.ca. For more information or to get actively involved with the campaign email us at info@savethecensus.ca.

This was a message posted on Civicaccess.ca list (also see archive for other great resources) in response to a blog post written by David Eaves.

The Civicaccess.ca list, from whence this blog is inspired, was founded on the discussion of making StatCan data free along with freeing Canada Post Data back in 2005 among many other access to public data Issues. Some on the list have been working toward that goal ever since. The number quoted by David in his article is very low and only reflect a portion of the revenue cost recovered by StatCan. Revenue generated by the sale of the Census alone since 1996 has been over $10 000 000. My ATIP requests

Statistics Canada, 2010, ATIP Request A-2010-00067, Census Revenue Notes, June 29. Indicates that

StatCan recovered $13,642,959 from the 2001 Census

The cycle for 2006 is not yet complete and therefore I do not have those figures. The figure above includes license fees, the sale of standard products, Custom Products, CD Rom fees, and Geography products. For instance the Community Data Consortium alone purchases about $700 000 worth of Census data for each cycle.

David does rightly make the point that revenue figures do not reflect the overhead cost of managing those resources and collecting them.

The cost of the census for 2001 was $432,033,300 or $14.40 per person according to ATIP request A-2010-00068. The cost recovered reflects 3.16% of the actual cost of the Census. Again, we do not know the overhead cost of recovering those moneys.

Most of StatCan’s special surveys are cost recovery projects, often cost shared between federal departments. Which means we also pay for those. Many surveys on topics related to Canada’s most vulnerable were discontinued, the LF Census was canceled and we expect to see more cuts coming down the pipes. It is true, that StatCan uses the revenue generated to fund other surveys.

The real problem however is not with StatCan but with the Treasury Board and Cabinet. There was a submission to Cabinet under the current government regime, offering cost savings by StatCan in order to cover the cost of making the Census Free. The Tory government accepted the proposed cost savings and refused to allow the giving of census data back to Canadians. If the Treasury were to actually adequately fund Statistics Canada then it would be able to give the data back to us. I am still trying to dig up the paper trail on the submission, but alas, memoranda to cabinet are confidential in Canada.

Bref, political pressure needs to be on the current government and also the Treasury. StatCan has little power over its budget beyond the usual mechanics, especially these days. We also need to keep in mind, that we have already lost disability surveys, and we have lost the ability to track the country’s immigrant, ethno cultural visible minorities, the poor, linguistic groups, people with mobility issues because the Census was just Cancelled (read more about lost surveys). More cuts to StatCan will not be about helping those groups and us advocating the abolition of cost recovery and not advocating to cover the revenue lost to StatCan by the Treasury will make us complicit in further marginalizing those groups. We need to lobby for more resources to StatCan to cover the loss of cost recovered funds, and of course to return the Long Form Census and we also need to ensure that it is autonomous from political interference as recommended by National Statistical Council of Canada. (more details available here).

I have not published my ATIP requests yet as I am still trying to validate a few pieces and do the analysis. It is also part of my PHD dissertation and at some point I need to publish officially.

Watching this is a great New Years morning activity, and for Sep Kamvar I fell that data and statistics are the new black!  This is worth the 1 hour of your time!  dam, most online TV shows are 42 minutes and you learn way less…I should know 🙁

Merci Karl!