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 115
Wednesday, March 3, 1999
The Honourable Fernand Robichaud Acting 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. Richard H. Kroft: Honourable senators, I wish to speak to an inquiry initiated by the Honourable Senator Milne and adjourned in the name of the Honourable Senator Johnson. I speak on the understanding that it will be adjourned in her name again.
The issue has been further expanded upon by Senators Fraser and Andreychuk. The critical fact is that no census returns collected in Canada after 1901 are accessible for any purpose, other than by the person who completed them.
Under the law as it now stands, you will recall, all census returns from 1906 and since are retained by Statistics Canada and are not forwarded to the National Archives, where they would be available for legitimate research. There was even a suggestion in 1995 by the Privacy Commissioner that census records not already in the public domain be destroyed, starting with those for 1991. Thankfully, Statistics Canada, for whatever reason, never agreed to do so.
On February 18, the Privacy Commissioner presented himself to this body in Committee of the Whole. It was an important occasion, and both his introductory remarks and his answers to questions revealed some significant and challenging perspectives. Of particular interest to me was his exchange with Senator Milne on the subject of census returns. He took a very hard line that basically ruled out any access to any census return for any purpose ever, other than by the person who completed the return.
Since I was then preparing my remarks, I paid very close attention as he described a widespread pattern of pervasive, intrusive and substantially out-of-control collection of private information. His overall message was that we are today suffering a significant loss of freedom because the massive amount of information about us that is gathered is not in any way under control, can be used for all sorts of purposes without our permission or our knowledge, and is moved and traded around between legitimate and illegitimate users in both the public and private sectors.
Following the appearance of Commissioner Phillips, I carefully reconsidered my prepared remarks. Did I really want to advocate more intrusion into private information? However, as I reviewed his testimony, I began to realize how easily one can move from legitimate concern about many of the serious problems he raises to a non-discriminating paranoia that leads us to see every piece of information collected as a threat to our rights and liberties.
As I thought about it more, I became increasingly anxious to participate in this inquiry. It is essential that we consider information, privacy and freedom very closely and carefully and that we exercise judgment about which information deserves the kind of protection that preoccupies Mr. Phillips and which information should be open and easily available.
While I share many of Mr. Phillips' fears, I am equally concerned that obsessive concepts of privacy not be allowed to inhibit the retention, management and availability of information that can be essential to the expansion of knowledge and understanding. I will refrain from using the expression "striking the right balance," since Commissioner Phillips invested it with an unattractive connotation. The truth is that different information requires different treatment, and some information calls for different treatment depending on time and circumstances. The importance of these distinctions comes very much to the fore when considering access to census returns.
Other senators have laid down many of the essential elements of this issue and have provided a number of valuable insights. I commend their speeches to you. They have spoken of the importance of census returns to genealogy and emphasized that only by census returns will future students and historians have any ability to learn the stories and real life details of ordinary people. Instead, as Senator Milne observed, all that will be known will be that of "blue bloods," "first families" and "tycoons," giving a skewed view of life at any time. This bothers me, too. It is not hard to imagine the image of our times that will be given if the only available record is that of celebrities of all types - politicians, athletes, entertainers and others about whom much is written.
Senator Mahovlich, I hope, will not read anything into that remark.
We are all aware that this body of information is often inaccurate in terms of particular subjects, and always inaccurate in the distorted picture it gives of the real lives of most people. The raw material of good historical research must include basic data about how the vast majority of people live, what they do to support themselves and their families, how ordinary domestic life is organized, and how family units develop. There is no direct source for most of this information other than the census records, as has been the case for many hundreds of years in Canada and elsewhere.
Part of my interest in this subject comes from personal experience. I became curious about a branch of my family that came to Canada from England in the late 19th century. I came to realize that I had grown up with a vague picture of who they really were, what their life in England had been like and, very important, when they had come to England and from where. As I pursued my investigations, I learned how full of inaccuracies and large gaps the collective family memory was. Of great significance, I also learned that what had been lost was the colour, spirit, texture, personality and humanity of people who, even when their names were vaguely recalled, were essentially unknown.
In England, I was able to find, largely from actual census returns from 1841 to 1891, information that was extraordinarily valuable in providing real knowledge and understanding. If my search revealed a tiny microcosm of 19th century England - a country that for part of my family served as a 100-year stopping off point on a movement from Eastern Europe to North America - the total picture that can emerge out of a multiplicity of such stories is far too rich and important to be lost.
If we stop to think that under the present law the possibility of doing fundamental historic research from raw census data from 1901 on does not exist in Canada, and will never exist in the future, we will come to realize that this is a matter of real concern and worthy of our attention. Are we prepared to forever deny all future Canadians and others the detailed knowledge of lives that have shaped and conditioned who we are and what they were? Surely, we should not leave this door shut and sealed forever, at least not without a careful consideration of the reasons and importance for doing so, and a full appreciation of the consequences.
What are the reasons for denying knowledge that could so easily be available? I have always viewed with horror those moments in history when the powers of the day - secular or religious - have acted to deny or destroy knowledge in the name of some greater good. Libraries have been burned, books denied, and illiteracy and ignorance perpetuated because knowledge was seen as dangerous. While no one would suggest that we are faced with similar motives now, we cannot deny that the result, in some respects, is the same. Important, meaningful information is being locked up or, as some would have it, destroyed. If this is to be, let us be absolutely certain that the reasons are beyond question and reproach.
I do not want to oversimplify this or present only one side. There are, indeed, some very difficult and important issues that must be addressed. First, the question must be asked whether the information in the census returns would exist at all without secrecy. Would people complete the returns, or do so fully and honestly, without the assurance currently given that "the confidentiality of your census form is protected by law"? With this assurance is confirmation that no other government agency or department can have access to it. It is argued that Canadians would not participate meaningfully without this assurance, and serious weight must be given to that proposition.
If the suggestion was that all census information should be available in the archives immediately, or after one year, obviously we would instinctively all say no. We all have a natural, correct, and justifiable sensitivity to governments and others prying into our personal information. On the other hand, if it were suggested that census information be released only after 200 years, few of us would likely object. Two hundred years is simply too far away really to concern most of us. If we can accept that somewhere between now and 200 years represents a range of possibility, we have taken the first step toward a policy.
Senators Milne and Fraser have told us that the United States makes raw census data available after 72 years and the United Kingdom after 99 or 100 years. An Australian study suggested 99 years. In Canada, information is now effectively available after 92 years, but the door is now closed to any new additions. Surely, it would not be beyond the reach of a serious study by a committee of this body to arrive at a meaningful and broadly acceptable number.
There is another related question that is both legitimate and difficult. What about all the census returns completed in this century by Canadians under the assurance of confidentiality? This assurance was first given under an Order in Council in 1905, and in legislation in 1918. Can we now move to open some or all of that? Would it be a fundamental breach of faith? This, as I have said, is a legitimate and difficult question and the committee would have to struggle hard with it. Perhaps a process of releasing the oldest ones, a decade each decade, would be found acceptable so that eventually all of it would become available.
The most strict and limiting alternative, of course, would be to leave the 20th century locked up forever. While I believe that would be a terrible situation, it would be better than allowing the principles embodied in the status quo to seal all new information yet to be gathered.
I would therefore hope that Parliament, through a committee of the Senate, would carefully examine and challenge the proposition that a perpetual guarantee of confidentiality is required to gather good and adequate information. If an acceptable number of years of protection can be found, we will, at worst, leave the 20th century as an aberrant blank, and, hopefully, we will find an appropriate and proper way around that.
As we think through this subject, let us not fall into the trap of believing that it is only a matter of narrow interest to genealogists and historians - people preoccupied with the past. All of us here would surely agree that history, while our window on the past, is our door to the future. However, even the study of history is only part of the issue. The principles involved in this problem are closely intertwined with the new technology-driven questions that we have only begun to contemplate. For example, what contribution can census data make to researchers looking for genetic links related to geography, ethnicity or standard of living in their search to understand and cure diseases? While history, particularly that of the 20th century, provokes some alarm for many of us when the idea of genetic tracking is raised, I believe we have come to a point where the enormous potential of good in science and medicine must confront these fears.
Another major issue is now emerging that relates to all of this and was referred to by the Privacy Commissioner. As medicine and the computer-based information age merge, the call is going out to have all of our medical histories in "the system" available to hospitals and physicians everywhere. This, it is argued, will be a great advance in dealing with a wide variety of situations where such information could be critical in terms of time, cost and safety. I raise this issue, not because it is the same as the census issue, but it is very close. It is part of the whole intellectual, ethical and personal debate we must pursue to be sure that we do not remain comfortably locked into simple and absolute positions without subjecting them to regular and rigorous scrutiny and challenge.
We are hurtling forward in the information age. It will require constant vigilance and effort to assure that we use that enormous power to our advantage. One thing it may do is allow us, with the vast databases now available and potentially available, to know and understand our past and our present in a way that has never before been possible. Census returns are a unique and important part of that database and that understanding.
Honourable senators, we are surrounded by legitimate and profound questions relating to privacy of personal information. My deep concern is that, in responding to these, we do not overreact and treat every piece of information as a threat and a danger. I see great risk of becoming obsessive about locking up information without due regard for its importance in expanding our base of knowledge. Census information touches on areas where our fears about privacy could come to work against our real interests.
Canadians deserve a careful study of both the underlying principles and actual practices employed in the gathering, storage and availability of census data. It is a matter that could be well served by the attentions of the Senate.
On motion of Senator Kroft, for Senator Johnson, debate adjourned.