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I didn’t fill out the “pretend census.” Here’s why

October 5, 2011

ATHABASCA, AB, Oct. 5, 2011/Troy Media/ – I live in one of the third of Canadian households that received the 2011 long-form census. But we decided not to fill it out.

Our reason was quite simple: the Harper government, in making the form voluntary, expected to hear mainly from people like myself and my partner and to be able to minimize social need in Canada. They have no doubt been successful in that goal. Statistics Canada announced last week that the long-form census was filled out by 69.3 per cent of the households that received it. By contrast, the compulsory short-form census was filled out by more than 98 per cent of households.

Solid middle-class households

By “people like us,” I mean solidly middle-class households where people are usually happy to comply with requests from governments, and from private pollsters for that matter, to fill out forms, to vote, and to participate within the volunteer sector.

If we had filled out the long form, the government would have heard cheerily that our homes have many rooms per person, and need no repairs, while we only rarely use public transportation. We have paid work all of the time and are not currently looking for work. We fill out these forms and talk to researchers, public and private, because we are among the winners in our society and therefore feel that we are indeed part of something larger than ourselves and have something to gain by being cooperative with those who want to survey us. We are also quite literate and forms do not intimidate us.

Of course, the government will have heard from some people who are not “people like us”: people who are poor, under-employed, under-housed, and in great need of public transportation. But their voice will have been under-represented since the efforts that were made on this go-round to insure that their voices were heard did not include an element of compulsion.

And why should they cooperate? They don’t feel like they are really part of the larger society, and in many ways, the larger society doesn’t feel they are either. The fact that 40 per cent of Canadians don’t vote, and that most of the poor are among them while few of the better off stay home on election day tells us that those who are disadvantaged don’t expect much to change by participating in the political process. That includes the census.

The disadvantaged feel excluded

I did help a household that does not consist of “people like us” fill out the long-form census. It became clear that many of the bureaucratic questions that seemed to me easy to understand were not so easy for those with less education to follow. The individual whom I was helping was, however, determined as he said, “to let them know about people like me.” But this is an individual who, while forced by mental health problems to be marginal in society, does vote and follow politics.

Many others in his situation, and likely most, simply feel excluded. They don’t vote and they don’t want to fill out forms. In the past, they had to complete the long-form census anyway if they received it in order to avoid being hounded by government agents just as they have to fill out the short form. Now they don’t have to fill it out, and most undoubtedly didn’t.

Some would say it is wrong to hound them when they have problems enough as it is. Fine, then why not just scrap the whole thing? The results, unlike those of past long-form censuses that had close to 100 per cent compliance, are worthless. One key goal of the long-form census has been to help governments and businesses know in detail what social problems need to be addressed better. This census will give them a fairy-tale version of Canadian society and lead to the problems of the disadvantaged being addressed even less than they currently are.

Alvin Finkel is professor of History at Athabasca University and author of Social Policy and Practice in Canada: A History (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2006)