EXTRACTS FROM HANSARD -- PROCEEDINGS OF CANADA'S SENATE :
The following extract has been taken from Hansard Records of Canada's Senate:
Debates of the Senate (Hansard)
1st Session, 36th Parliament,
Volume 137, Issue 107
Thursday, February 4, 1999
The Honourable Gildas L. Molgat, Speaker
Access to Census Information
On the Order:
Resuming debate on the inquiry of the Honourable Senator Milne calling the attention of the Senate to the lack of access to the 1906 and all subsequent censuses caused by an Act of Parliament adopted in 1906 under the Government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier.-(Honourable Senator Johnson).
Hon. Joan Fraser: Honourable senators, I realize that this debate was adjourned in the name of Senator Johnson, but I would appreciate the opportunity to speak briefly on this topic, on the understanding, of course, that the debate would continue to be adjourned in her name.
I would thank Senator Milne for drawing this topic to our attention. We live in an information age when data of all kinds are increasingly important. Census data are among the most precious resources we have and the question of access to them merits, I believe, serious consideration by the Senate.
Senator Milne gave us an excellent summary of genealogists' reasons for believing that individual census returns should continue to be available to researchers after an appropriate lapse of time. Genealogists are not the only people who use this material. Many other researchers do as well. I should like to focus particularly on the historical aspect.
It is not always realized that Canada's census has a very long history indeed. The first census of New France was ordered by Louis XIV and conducted by Jean Talon in 1666. You may be interested to know that at that time the population of settlers in New France totalled 3,215. The following year, they did a census of livestock, but I am afraid I do not know how many cows and pigs they found.
Throughout the French regime, periodic censuses were taken. The British regime was less assiduous in collecting such data, but censuses did continue to be taken on an increasingly regular basis and the results have been a vital resource for historians.
Section 8 of the British North America Act specifically instructs the federal government to conduct a decennial census. Accordingly, the first post-confederation census was taken in 1871 and the Dominion Bureau of Statistics, now Statistics Canada, was established early in this century. It has gained an enviable reputation around the world for the quality and rigor of its work.
We can all understand why the initial policy was adopted in 1906 to ban access to individual returns that would be completed from that time on. The policy met two goals: It ensured that private information would remain private, and that, in turn, helped to ensure that people would tell the truth on their census returns. Since a census is useful only if its results are accurate, this was and is important. Until now, researchers had no particular need to be concerned because they did have access to returns completed before 1906, after a period of 92 years had elapsed.
Now, however, it is 93 years since the blanket ban of 1906. If the policy is not changed, researchers will be forever excluded from examining this important material. It seems to me that we simply must find a way to reconcile once again the tension between the need for individuals to preserve their privacy and the need for researchers to have access to important data.
Canada is not the only country to have faced this dilemma. In Australia, a parliamentary committee has thoroughly examined the same question. It received 291 submissions and reported to the House of Representatives last year. I think we can learn something from its experience.
The Australian committee found the same tensions between competing interests that we face now in Canada. The Australian Bureau of Statistics, like Statistics Canada, was most concerned with ensuring that citizens would feel complete trust that their returns would remain completely private. Indeed, the Australian authorities, unlike Statistics Canada, actually destroy the individual returns.
However, other groups and institutions, including the Australian national archives, argued that it was possible to reconcile that important goal of privacy with the needs of serious researchers. I would like to quote some of these witnesses as reported by the committee.
A historian, Dr. Jennifer Harrison, said:
The records will give us the people. History, I always say, is made up of three elements; it is made up of people and time and events, but the greatest of all these are the people. When we actually look at movements of people, it is the individual cases that give lie to the myths that have been created. It is only by looking at lots and lots of case studies and building up the actual individual experiences that we get the overall experiences.
A senior political scientist, Professor Donald DeBats, told the Australian committee:
The census creates the people's history because the census is the only record of the people. It is the only record in which the people - all the people - speak.
A demographer told the committee how census analysis was making it possible to analyze historical issues relating to fertility decline. A geographer explained how the examination of individual census returns could contribute to studies of a wide range of questions, from the intergenerational transmission of poverty to the relationship between changes in marital status and fertility and mortality rates.
Dr. Harrison, the historian, also made the vital point that, in her words:
...whereas the 19th century is quite well documented, the 20th century particularly, despite technology, will be relatively unrecorded as far as people go.
Indeed, one might think that it is precisely because of technology that our century and the next one will be relatively unrecorded. In an age of cellular telephones and e-mail, we do not leave the same paper trail that our ancestors left, nor do we require public registration of some of the things that 19th century states required. Common- law marriages, for example, are now numerous and do not need to be registered, so we cannot necessarily replace census information with information gleaned from other sources.
The Australian committee considered all these points of view and concluded that it would be a significant contribution toward preserving Australia's history to give researchers access to individual records after a significant period of time. It recommended allowing access after 99 years. This would be comparable to the practice in the United Kingdom which allows access after 100 years.
It is my understanding that the Australian government has not yet acted and, in any case, Canada obviously should adopt a policy based on its own needs, not on those of another country. I believe that the value of our records, to historians alone, not to mention other fields of research, merit restoring the policy of allowing access to individual returns after a suitable period of time has elapsed.
In an era when people live far longer than they did in the 19th century, 92 years may well be too short a period of time. Many of us know people who are still going strong at the age of 92, and certainly there should be no question of personal information about their childhood suddenly being made public.
Perhaps a longer period; 100 years, or 125 years, would be suitable. It is important not only to preserve the privacy of Canadians but to preserve their trust in the census system. However, honourable senators, I cannot believe that we should seal these records forever. The parallel that to me seems irresistible is with the Doomsday Book. When William the Conqueror ordered the compilation of what he called a description of England in the 11th century, his object was not to help out future historians, he simply wanted to be sure he was getting all the tax revenue to which he was entitled. In 1086, his inquirers produced a uniquely thorough record, listing not only individual people but vital information about them, from the amount of land they owned right down to numbers of livestock and agriculture tools. The citizens were not happy, of course. Who wants to pay taxes? It was they who gave this inquiry the name Domesday Book.
Historians have been feasting on the results ever since. The Domesday Book, which is actually two books, are among the most precious historical resources ever compiled. They are consulted even more often today than at some periods in the past because they give an absolutely unparalleled look at how real people actually lived at that moment 900 years ago.
Honourable senators, our individual census records are better than the Domesday Book because they continue through time, through more than three centuries now. Nothing else can compare with them.
The accounts of our history that are written by those who participated or observed that history as it unfolded will inevitably be shaded by writers' views of the truth, or even, dare I say, by writers' wishes to distort the truth. The census records do not lie.
I find it simply inconceivable that we should close our minds to this wonderful, irreplaceable record. One of the great lessons we have learned as a society is, surely, that to move forward with constructive purpose we must look to where we have been and how we got to where we are now. We have been able to consult our past. Surely, the generations to come deserve, in turn, the right to consult their past.
Hon. John B. Stewart: Honourable senators, I should like to ask a couple of questions of the Honourable Senator Fraser. Were there particular questions that brought forth information which was regarded as not suitable for publication even after 90 or so years?
Senator Fraser: Honourable senators, I am not quite sure. If one looks at the census forms, one can see that there are some questions about which one would hesitate to have the results made public. For example, there are very detailed questions about income on the long form. There are questions about the status of one's marriage. There are still people who would prefer that their children not know that their marriage is common law rather than traditional.
It seems to me that after a great deal of time has passed, these records, like cabinet and royal records, lose that sensitivity and become a historical resource.
Senator Stewart: Honourable senators, I suppose to some extent the answer to my question could be found by looking at the speeches that were made back in 1906 when the act was amended.
Are the questions relative to marital status and income as precise as they were in 1906? Perhaps there is a distinction between the short form and the long form in this regard.
Senator Fraser: I am sorry that I did not bring my copies of the forms with me. As I looked at the questions last night, however, I thought they were probably more detailed and precise now than they were in 1906. They go on at some length about income from rents, income from dividends, income from all kinds of things. I believe we ask more now than we did then. However, I believe the basic point probably remains the same.
Senator Stewart: Am I correct in thinking that while on the one hand the honourable senator thinks that some of this information should remain undisclosed for a long period of time, you feel that after the expiry of that long period of time the reasons for the non-disclosure in the earlier years have lost their significance and, consequently, the information should be available? I think that is the honourable senator's position.
I understand, by the way, with the help of Senator Milne, that the questions on the 1911 census are identical to those on the 1901 census, which would seem to answer my earlier question.
Senator Fraser: I believe you have understood it perfectly, Senator Stewart.
I would add that notions of what is extremely private or sensitive vary, as we know, from time to time and from country to country. I was interested to learn, for example, that in Australia they do not even ask a date of birth. I am not sure why. I can only assume it is because it was thought that some people would lie about it.
Hon. Sharon Carstairs (Deputy Leader of the Government): Honourable senators, I ask that the item remain adjourned in the name of Senator Johnson.
On motion of Senator Carstairs, for Senator Johnson, debate adjourned.
The Senate adjourned until Tuesday February 9, 1999, at 2 p.m.