This page contains correspondence from Professor Bill Waiser, University of Saskatchewan, relating to the Town Hall Meeting held in Regina. Professor Waiser attended the afternoon session of these meetings. He did not present a formal statement, but used speaking notes in his verbal presentation. He also presented to the moderator some past articles relating to the Census issue that he had managed to get published. Following is an article written by Professor Waiser that was submitted to the Globe and Mail, and the National Post. Unfortunately, neither paper saw fit to print it
From: Bill Waiser
To: Gordon A. Watts
Sent: Thursday, January 31, 2002 5:18 AM
Subject: Re: Town Hall meetings
It looks like the Regina afternoon attendance beat Vancouver--we had about 30. I got angry at the start of my presentation and was quite blunt at times--it got me two interruptions of applause, but I don't know how helpful it was. At least, they have a sense of the frustration out there. Glad to hear that you politely whacked them.
It’s sad – if it wasn’t so troubling. Statistics Canada, a federal agency devoted to conducting surveys and collecting data "to help Canadians better understand their country", is trying to cripple research into our past.
I recently attended one of the town hall meetings conducted across the country by Environics Canada on behalf of Statistics Canada to secure yet more input on the question of access to historic census material, in particular the 1906 and 1911 returns.
At the Regina afternoon meeting, copies of a so-called "compromise solution" were distributed to the audience before the facilitator made his introductory remarks. It was suggested the proposal might be a way out of the census impasse. Or is it?
In July 2000, Statistics Canada developed a proposal to provide limited access to century-old census data. Known internally as the Wilk option, it was pushed by the agency before the recommendations of the Expert Panel on Access to Historical Census Records had been made public. It appears that Statistics Canada was anxious to find some other solution, especially since the panel would strongly recommend the unqualified public release of old census material.
When the Wilk option was sent to the National Archives of Canada for comment, the staff responded with a devastating, three-page critique, listing several substantial reservations. National Archivist Ian Wilson followed with his own letter on September 1, 2000 to the Chief Statistician, in which he stated the compromise would not accomplish the agency’s objectives. In Wilson’s words, the proposal was "heavily bureaucratic and essentially unenforceable."
Undeterred, Statistics Canada is evidently determined to drum up support for the compromise by promoting it at the Environics town hall meetings at considerable public expense. But the response in Regina, and at other sessions across the country, has been a resounding no – and for good reason.
The Wilk option is based on the faulty premise that Canadians who participated in the 1906 and 1911 censuses were promised their returns would be kept confidential in perpetuity. But this position is not supported by the independent analysis of the Expert Panel or a recent legal opinion from the Department of Justice; rather, according to the explicit census instructions, the material is to be a permanent record in the National Archives.
Even more disturbing, though, is the recommendation that any genealogical research in the records be restricted to "one’s own family." This provision would effectively shut out those, such as adoptees, orphans or boarders, who are trying to discover their family roots. Indeed, census records are in many instances the only way to establish one’s family tree.
Family historians are also interested in tracing collateral branches–not just their own family. But under the compromise, individuals can research only "direct descendants of a direct ancestor." Taking a peak at their extended families would be taboo.
Historians and other researchers would be equally hamstrung by the proposal. The Wilk option recommends that "reasonable" access to the records be granted for "historical research." But "historical research" is never defined. Are other promising areas of research, such as medical, legal or environmental, to be excluded?
The proposal also severely limits public disclosure to certain basic census information: names, ages, address, marital status, and birthplace. It would consequently be illegal to publish data on any number of topics–whether it be health, employment, education, or religion. Nor would it be possible to tell the collective stories of everyday Canadians, something that researchers have successfully done with the pre-1906 census data without a single word of protest about the violation of privacy.
The Wilk option recommends that the enforcement of these restrictions be complaint - based. But it is never explained who has the right to complain. One thing is certain though: the extremely narrow operating principles will likely result in litigation by those denied access.
The Statistics Canada compromise is really no compromise, but a giant step backwards. And it must be rejected or it will exact a heavy toll on Canadian history.
It is also unnecessary. In the early 1980s, the Canadian government provided a mechanism (section 6D of the Privacy Act) to govern the release of historical census materials. Yet, Statistics Canada continues to ignore these regulations and in doing so, is hurting the agency’s reputation for fairness and research.
The greatest irony, though, is that Statistics Canada’s foot dragging on this issue comes at a time when so many people tried to access the on-line1901 British census that it overloaded the system.
Department of History
University of Saskatchewan