Linda McQuaig, writer and social commentator

Harper’s attack on the census: bad news for the poor

Scrapping census will allow Harper Conservatives to shape policies that make the rich richer

Linda McQuaig, writer and social commentator

By Linda McQuaig, – We hear a great deal about the lives of the rich, much of it sympathetic and often fawning.

Even Conrad Black, despite his history of anti-Canadian outbursts, is treated almost fondly by commentators who generally have a hard-hearted, tough-on-crime attitude toward less well-heeled felons.

The poor rarely get such sympathetic attention; indeed they rarely get much attention at all. And they’re soon to get even less.

That is the real reason for the Harper government’s decision to scrap the long-form census matters, and why the debate over it is more than a bizarre obsession with statistics in this overheated summer. 

As a number of experts have noted, the decision to replace the mandatory long-form census with a voluntary abbreviated survey will result in less reliable data collection, particularly from the poor and marginalized.

So, as income becomes ever more concentrated at the top, as it has in recent years, we’ll know less and less about those at the bottom, making them easier to ignore.

Sam Boshra, a former analyst for Statistics Canada, puts it this way: “If this results in the poor and unemployed being undercounted, the government could justify reallocating resources away from programs targeting these disadvantaged groups.”

Boshra notes that the long-form data is the basis for just about all of Statistics Canada’s important social measurements. The unemployment rate, for instance, is compiled from the monthly Labour Force Survey, but the sample used in that survey is based on the census data. Once the census data becomes voluntary, the unemployment rate will be considered less reliable, taking the heat off governments in times of rising unemployment.

All this could enable the Harper government to put in place neo-conservative policies without suffering a backlash from Canadians.

Neo-conservative economic policies — notably, tax cuts for the rich, austerity for the rest — are intuitively unappealing to most Canadians, who tend to believe in fairness, social inclusion and equal opportunity.

But if Canadians are unaware of the extent of poverty, they won’t be concerned about policies that fail to address the problem. Indeed, they’ll be under the impression the problem is being addressed.

This wouldn’t be the first time the right has attempted to make the poor invisible.

Since the 1990s, the ultra-right Fraser Institute has tried to discredit the way Statistics Canada calculates poverty, based on a measure relative to the rest of the population.

The Fraser Institute favours a measure based on minimal subsistence. Under this approach, children are considered not to live in poverty as long as they have food and shelter, even if they lack things most Canadians consider basic — like books, toys, school supplies.

Using the Fraser poverty calculation, vast swaths of Canada’s poor simply disappear, reclassified as middle class — even as children fall behind at school because their parents can’t pay for field trips or calculators.

Of course, the Harper government insists it’s simply responding to public complaints that the census violates privacy. In fact, there have been lots of complaints about the census — but they’re mostly related to the 2003 decision to contract out census collection to Lockheed Martin. That provoked widespread concerns that the U.S. military contractor might pass data on Canadians to U.S. government agencies.

In debates over public policy, the rich tend to dominate, while the poor are barely heard.

The long-form census is one of the few lifelines the poor have to let us know they’re out there. Removing it will make it all the easier for Harper to ignore the muffled cries of those who can’t even buy their kids toys or school supplies.

Linda McQuaig is author of It’s the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet.

  • Garth Staples


  • Garth Staples

    It was the Liberal Govt in 2001-2002 which supported StatsCan and its bid to stop the release of the 1906 and 1911 censuses 92 yrs after they were taken. Shameful. They settled on a comprosmise—–Canadians can now elect VOLUNTARILY to not allow release of their info. So StatsCan and the Grits HAVE heard of the word VOLUNTARY!
    See my presentation the travelling circus in 2002.

  • Stephen Pate

    How does the release/non-release of confidential albeit old information correlate with removal of the details in the long-form census?

  • Stephen Pate

    Only nonsense if you don’t give a rat’s ass about people living in poverty, disability or other minorities.

  • Garth Staples

    Mr Pate knows better than to suggest I don’t care about those less fortunate.

    My nonsense was that the world would not collapse if the long form was made voluntary. Great opportunity here for Canadians to support the poor. There are other ways of doing INFORMATION than through StatsCan
    a truly arrogant organization.

    Think, explore, research my friend. For gawds sake don’t rely on bureaucrats.Most are fickle friends if they figure out ‘what’s in it for me!

  • Garth Staples

    Mr Pate missed my second point. StatsCan is only interested in the notion of VOLUNTARY when it meets their agenda—NO INFORMATION for the unwashed.

  • Stephen Pate

    We do need the statistics on Canadians living with disabilities and Statistics Canada are the only organization who has surveyed this accurately in the past. Your issue with them is on revealing data they say is confidential, despite its age. We need the information that they have been supplying for the past 10 years. They are not related but I understand your antipathy.

  • Garth Staples

    Canadians are so Govt dependant that thinking outside the box is almost impossible.

    Think abt it. StatsCan is a Govt funded(taxpayer)
    glorified pollster and surveyor.

    There are lots of private, highly competent, well strutured comapnies capable of performing the tasks currently carried out by SC: Harris-Decima, Angus Reid, Ipsos, Polorama and so on.

    Once they complete a task the taxpayer doesn’t have to meet the payroll!!!

    THINK outside the box . Reduce the size of Govt.

  • Stephen Pate

    Sorry Garth those pollsters can’t replace Stats Canada. They are generally run by ex-politicos with political bias.

  • Garth Staples

    And what biases do bureaucrats hold?!!!!
    Entitlements, arrogrance probably overshadow
    all others.

  • johannes

    Time for a bit of satire. Sometimes it is so sad it becomes funny again.