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)
2nd Session, 36th Parliament,
Volume 138, Issue 58
Thursday, May 18, 2000
The Honourable Gildas L. Molgat, Speaker
Proposal to Institute Government Responses to Petitions
Hon. Eymard G. Corbin: Honourable senators, my question is to the Leader of the Government in the Senate. Senator Forrestall just a moment ago spoke of relating our concerns to cabinet and whoever makes decisions.
I found out recently that there is a practice in the other place of the government laying on the Table its responses to petitions. We do not have that practice here in the Senate. I refer to petitions of the type presented by Senator Milne, for example, regarding genealogical research and census records. We sometimes wonder if those petitions are going anywhere, if they are getting the attention they deserve or, indeed, if anyone beyond those sitting at the Table are listening. As to what happens to them, we have no idea. Indeed, I wonder if the petitioners themselves sometimes have the feeling that they are petitioning in the wind because we never see any concrete results.
Would the Leader of the Government in the Senate be supportive of a change to the Rules of the Senate or a commitment on the part of the government to table substantial responses to petitions presented in this house by senators on behalf of Canadians?
Hon. J. Bernard Boudreau (Leader of the Government): Honourable senators, I thank the honourable senator for raising that particular issue. I appreciate his experience in the practices of the other place particularly. It sounds to me like a sensible idea and one that I shall pursue.
National Archives of Canada Act
Bill to Amend-Second Reading-Debate Continued
On the Order:
Resuming debate on the motion of the Honourable Senator Milne, seconded by the Honourable Senator Chalifoux, for the second reading of Bill S-15, to amend the Statistics Act and the National Archives of Canada Act (census records).-( Honourable Senator Johnson).
Hon. Nicholas W. Taylor: Honourable senators, I am somewhat bothered by Senator Milne's motion. I am not in favour of making old census data available to the public, for a number of reasons. This is a topical issue because the Privacy Commissioner has just told us that the Government of Canada has about 1,000 bits of information on each of us. The issue of whether information that the government has acquired about us is kept private is currently in the public sphere, and the first place where the government gets information is from census forms.
There are several reasons I am not happy with the thought that my grandchildren could find out how I lived. It is very intriguing to know what grandpa and great-grandpa did, but if people know that the information they put on their census forms will become public at some time in the future, that will govern what information they provide. It is no longer data that one thinks will be buried forever. It becomes almost like a radio or TV interview in that the information will be made public.
I am also concerned about the sanctity of the contract. People from 1900 until today who participated in the census had every reason to believe that they had contracted with the government of the day to keep their information private forever. We are now considering breaking that contract. Once we do so, what is to keep us from shortening the period for which the information is kept secret?
I am loathe to have the government open files and release information after people have died, with which people the government has contracted. When censuses are conducted in the future, perhaps people should be advised that the information will be released at a set time in the future. I do not agree, however, that we can renege on a contract made with the Government of Canada 50 or 80 years ago. That would be to break an ancient trust.
My next point is that if you know that the information you are providing will be revealed in the future, you may have a tendency to embellish. You may paint your life in the way that you would like your grandchildren to think it was.
Finally, although historians say that census information is useful for valid reasons such as predicting birth defects and other inherited traits, they can also be used to find out information that the person who provided the information would not have wanted revealed. A census is sort of like going to confession. You do not expect to read about it in the papers later.
Honourable senators, those are my reasons for opposing this motion.
Hon. Lorna Milne: Would the Honourable Senator Taylor accept a question?
Senator Taylor: Yes.
Senator Milne: Is Senator Taylor aware that the only questions that were asked 92 years ago were name, address, relationship to the head of the family, and age? The questions in the census up until 1951 were very innocuous.
One of the objections to this bill, which is constantly reiterated, is that people were promised that the census results would be forever kept secret. Better minds than mine have done an enormous amount of research of the records, and nowhere in the records of the House of Commons, the Senate, or the newspapers of that time was there any mention of perpetual privacy promised for personal census results - not once, not ever.
Is the Honourable Senator Taylor aware that never once has a complaint been registered with the Privacy Commissioner, Statistics Canada or the National Archives of Canada about the release of historic census results? This applies not only in Canada but also in the United States and Great Britain. Never once has a complaint been made about the release of historic census data. I am talking about something which applies to approximately 620 million people in those three countries.
Senator Taylor: Honourable senators, I thank the honourable senator for her questions.
The honourable senator mentioned that census questions asked in the early part of the century were limited. I did not intend to suggest that those limited questions were the only ones ever asked. The point is that the little needle-noses who acquire and put together the questions asked of people on the census are making the forms longer and longer. As a matter of fact, I was with someone the other day when they opened their mail box. After uttering an expletive, the person said, "I got the long form to fill out." In other words, we are being asked to give the census takers more and more information.
The information I am talking about is information from the 1920s, the 1950s and the 1990s. In other words, there becomes a rolling deadline in that, once the seal has been broken, it will go on and on. Therefore, more complete information is being asked for today.
How will the decision be made as to what information should be released? Will the request down the road be: "We want the information until 1920, but not after that." In other words, the whole sanctity of the contract will be destroyed.
The honourable senator said that no one has ever made mention of the lack of privacy. One reason for that might be that most of those people are dead. The dead do not complain.
I do not know what importance can be attached to the lack of complaints of invasion of privacy. In law, just because you do not complain about something does not mean you like it. The honourable senator is advocating a form of negative billing to census taking. In other words, if you do not get up to complain, it is all right. I question that.
The honourable senator is saying, "I want that information. My generation wants it, so we should have it." I hope my grandchildren do not start kicking the slats out of their cradles and demand all the information from my generation. There is an implied contract to keep the information private.
Senator Milne: Honourable senators, I wish to ask a follow-up question of the Honourable Senator Taylor.
Is Senator Taylor aware that, in 1983, the new Privacy Act regulations permitted public access to name-identified census data after 92 years? This is a provision written into the Privacy Act. The post-1901 census is not excluded from this public access. If it was not the intention of the government, as they had always done up until that point, to release, at 10-year intervals, the further census results, why on earth in 1983 would they be writing laws along that line?
Senator Taylor: That is a good question, honourable senators. In effect, the honourable senator has turned my own argument around. I have said that there were no precedents and that we had a contract not to open up that data. The honourable senator is saying, "They have already broken the contract, so why can we not keep breaking it?" The only argument to that is that two wrongs do not make a right.
Hon. Sheila Finestone: Honourable senators, would the Honourable Senator Milne clarify the comments that she just made? As I understand the provision of the Privacy Act, it allows for the opening of census data for research purposes only. It is not a general opening of all the information contained in the census files of 1901 and on, but for a deliberate and defined purpose.
The Hon. the Speaker: The Honourable Senator Finestone may address a question to the Honourable Senator Taylor, but not to the Honourable Senator Milne in this case. She was addressing questions to the Honourable Senator Taylor.
In any case, I must inform the Senate that the 15-minute period has elapsed. Is the Honourable Senator Taylor requesting leave to continue?
Senator Taylor: No.
The Hon. the Speaker: Honourable senators, this matter originally stood in the name of the Honourable Senator Johnson. Is it your pleasure, honourable senators, that it remain in her name?
Hon. Senators: Agreed.
Order stands in the name of Senator Johnson.