Canadian Conservatives Scrapping of Long-Form Census Prevents Food Planning

It’s a pretty strong sign that we live in an information economy and society when the Conservative cancellation of the longform census became one of the hot button political issues of the summer season.

I was stupefied when the Harper Conservatives dug in their heels, refusing to budge despite a chorus of harsh criticisms from senior planners, civil servants and editorialists.

“Too much information” seems to be the Conservative watchword. They think people shouldn’t have to report their income, language ethno-cultural backgrounds, and anyone who wants to know that info should do their own survey and pay for it.

I didn’t get what the fight was about until my holidays last week, when I took a long walk along one of Prince Edward Island’s classic beaches with my friends and hosts, Walt and Alison. They convinced me that the controversy is about the days of government ability to plan being numbered by Conservatives who think that only corporations need fine-grained information on social and health trends because only markets, not governments, need to respond to these trends.

Walt Palmer is more sensitive than most to the kinds of numbers modern organizations need to see ahead in broad daylight, fog or darkness. Recently retired, he spent his entire career either flying bush planes throughout the far north or captaining huge Airbuses across continents.

The pilot’s dashboard “is what makes professional flying possible,” he says. “Numerical representation of reality is everything to a pilot” because that’s how speed, distance, altitude, wind, air pressure, direction, fuel level – the multitude of factors that have to be weighed for good decisions – are identified and conveyed. By contrast, common sense observation can be worse than useless. “Common sense tells you the world is flat,” and the naked eye’s ability to distinguish between horizon line and optical illusion can get very dicey.

“We also need information to know what we don’t know and what we need to check and ask,” Palmer says. The Harper Conservative decision to nix the wealth of information in the longform census tells him they have the opposite view — more in keeping with keeping the government grounded and the public in the dark when it comes to social and economic planning.

Palmer’s partner, Alison Blay-Palmer, a geography prof at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, moves the discussion toward food and agriculture. Her views are based on research for a Social Science and Humanities Research Council grant to chart sustainability of Canada’s food system.

The kind of fine-grained info long available through the longform census provides flashing red lights on emerging problems, Blay-Palmer says. Overall rates of overweight and obesity in Ontario went from 49.4 to 51.4 per cent between 2003 and 2009, but in her area, the rates for recent immigrants, Aboriginal peoples and children from families on low incomes went up much higher, as did the overall rate of diabetes, which shot up 50 per cent.

To prevent potentially catastrophic levels of illness and medical expenditure, health planners need to relate disease trends to social and economic trends reported in the census so they “know where to intervene, and what facilities to build,” she says. “We can’t even think of what questions to ask when we don’t have the data,” she says. “It’s like shooting a gun in the dark or driving a boat without a rudder.” That’s why social planning and health professionals are almost unanimous in their opposition to losing the golden opportunity for accessible information that the long census provides.

Blay-Palmer’s longer-range concern is what happens to agriculture stats, which are more detailed and considerably more bothersome to fill out than the urban longform census, but chockfull of info for smart public decisions.

Right now, Industry Canada has info from StatsCan, which gets a lot of info from the census to show how many food imports could actually be easily grown in Canada. Of 82 farm product classifications, some – barley, powdered milk, sausages, ham, mushrooms, beans, apple juice and cherries stand out for me – many are already grown in Ontario. In 2000, Ontario imported two billion dollars worth of such foods – a trend known as “redundant trade” since trucks bring apples in are matches by trucks taking apples out. In 2009, the figure jumped to $4.1 billion, she says.

Having that kind of detailed info at the ready, together with census stats on urban customers, “shows Ontario farmers how to tap into four billion dollars worth of opportunity at our doorstep,” she says and how the province can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollutants simply by reducing unnecessary trade. That kind of “low-hanging fruit” can yield about 80,000 jobs, not too shabby as economic stimulus. The reduced traffic jams, air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions are a public and environmental bonus.

Until recently, Blay-Palmer thought her access to such data was safe and sound. Now she’s worried about an information blackout.

What surprises her is that other industrial countries are going in the opposite direction from Harper’s Conservatives. In 2009, France commissioned three of the world’s leading economists, including Amartya Sen and Joesph Stiglitz, to prepare a 300-page report on indicators of well-being that could be collected to improve planning tools. U.S. president Barrack Obama has directed collection on 300 indicators that will gauge impacts of his recent medical insurance plans.

Stats gathering is almost as old as government, and is certainly a hallmark of democratic governments, which use info as a way to cultivate reason, evidence and anti-authoritarianism
In public policy decisions, Timothy Ferris argues in his recent book, The Science of Liberty.

In an era when it’s an axiom that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure,” taking accessible measurement information out of the public realm is a way of taking management out of the public realm, and giving private corporations – many of which have as much information on customer habits as their therapists – a monopoly of the kind of data needed to plan.

During the 1990s, in the first phase of neo-conservatism in Canada, it was said that the task of the government was “to steer, not to row.” That’s when Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney closed down the Economic Council of Canada, and when Ontario Premier Mike Harris shut the doors on the Premier’s Council on Health and the Premier’s Council on Science and Technology – nice ways of ensuring that corporations, not governments did effective steering.

After a decade’s lull, Harper is cranking up the second phase of neo-conservatism by denying governments, civil servants and their critics the tools they need to make wise public policy decisions. Corporations will have all the information they need to move their agenda with customers, but when it comes to connections that governments need to make between health and other factors, says Walt Paomer, “Harper is erasing the dots.”


  1. John Novotny says:

    “Corporations will have all the information they need to move their agenda with customers, but when it comes to connections that governments need to make between health and other factors, says Walt Paomer, “Harper is erasing the dots.””

    The difference is that corporations can’t legally make you take a census or put you in jail for not doing it. The same sources or data that are available to corporations are available to government. Walt Paomers statement is total BS.

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