McGill student groups are up in arms over the Harper government’s June decision to scrap Canada’s mandatory long-form census, saying they fear the change will strike at the quality of student research.
On August 11, McGill’s Post-Graduate Student Society (PGSS) and the undergraduate Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) released a press release along with two student groups from Concordia, railing against the government’s decision. Ryan Hughes, PGSS VP External, said that the not-for-profit Free Education Montreal was also involved in planning the coordinated statement.
The release asserts, “graduate students use [the census] data daily to complete research and conduct projects,” including gauging “the quality of public transit… and how civil society organizations can better engage with social issues such as poverty and discrimination.”
Hughes further described his organization’s opposition to the census changes as a matter of principle. “Generally, the PGSS does not support any actions taken by the government taken solely for ideological purposes,” he said.
He went on to say that his work as VP External, a position in which he is responsible for advocating on behalf of students to various levels of government, would be directly affected by the changes to the census.
“I’m currently conducting a tuition review and I’ve seen a lot of material that’s relied on StatsCan in my research,” Hughes said, referring to Statistics Canada, the federal statistical agency responsible for the census.
Myriam Zaidi, SSMU VP External, echoed the press releases’ focus on student research in an interview with the Daily, saying, “SSMU is a student society and we want to support student research.”
Zaidi also said her work as a VP External would be affected because “as VP external we use StatsCan material to analyze the level of education in different provinces….I’ve used StatsCan already this summer four times, just to know how to compare Quebec to other provinces when it comes to education.”
Daniel Simeone, a graduate student in the History Department and Speaker of PGSS Council, worries about how this will influence the work of scholars a hundred years from now.
He conceded that most current historians would not be touched directly by the changes to the census, but said “historians of the future won’t be able to have as fine-grained an understanding of Canadian society.”
“One of the benefits of the censuses of the past,” Simeone continued, “is that you can read into them the history of groups that don’t otherwise produce history. So, women’s history, gay history, immigrant history.”
Under the Harper government’s proposal, a shorter voluntary census would continue to be sent out to one-fifth of homes every five years. But opponents of the changes believe the voluntary nature of the new census will create a self-selecting sample of respondents and weaken the credibility of the census data.
Munir Sheikh, who was head of Statistics Canada when the Harper government announced its decision regarding the census, resigned after Industry Minister Tony Clement repeatedly claimed a voluntary census could produce data as reliable as the mandatory form. Commenting on whether or not the voluntary census “can become a substitute for a mandatory census,” Sheikh said simply: “It can not.”
Many supporters of the government’s decision say a mandatory long-form census is unnecessarily coercive. Until the Harper government took its decision, the penalty for failing to complete the long-form census was either a maximum $500 fine or a maximum of three months in prison, although no one has ever faced prison time for the infraction.
On August 26 John McCallum, the Liberal Finance Critic, said he would introduce legislation to reinstate the mandatory long-form census, but without the threat of jail time for failing to complete the form.
Dr. Reuven Brenner, an economics professor and REPAP Chair of Economics at McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management, opposes the mandatory long-form census on the grounds that any penalties attached to failing to complete the census are irrational and excessive.
“If people don’t vote (which is far more important for sustaining a vibrant democracy, I would think) there are no penalties involved and it’s nobody’s business,” Dr. Brenner wrote in an email. “I am not saying there should be penalties for this, but then it is a puzzle why ‘liberals’ think that not filling the forms deserves any punishment.”
Dr. Brenner also criticized opposition parties for making the census a partisan issue. “If, as now [Liberal MP John] McCallum admits, the Liberal Party wants to promote its agenda based on data from the Census, let their party pay for it,” Dr. Brenner wrote. “Not clear why all taxpayers should subsidize this or any party’s, or any interest groups’ (academics included), agenda.”
According to a list compiled by the website datalibre.ca, 341 organizations and individuals are publicly opposed to the government’s census decision, while 11 support it.