Privacy or History

By Gordon Lockheed | June 11, 2002

Data from the 1901 Canada census has recently been released—nine years after it was supposed to be made available. Now, StatsCan, the successor to the federal agencies that have been conducting censuses since well before confederation, is saying it isn’t going to make the results of the already four years late 1906 census available at all, on the grounds that the information it holds is "private".

Genealogists are understandably apoplectic about this, and not just because a public agency’s suggestion that its data is somehow private. The closing of the 1906 census—and subsequent ones, denies them access to the family records on which their valuable continuity-generating cultural work is based.

Almost certainly there is a legal liability issue at the core of StatsCan’s refusal to release the 1906 census, one that is as minuscule as it is potentially lethal: if someone were to live beyond the (theoretical) 92 year delay between data collection and release, they, or their litigatory descendants, could sue the government for breech of privacy under the Canadian Bill of Rights and quite likely, a dozen other statutes. From a common sense point of view, this is simply silliness: post-humus privacy is being weighed against the vast benefits of individual historical continuity and against public knowledge of the past—not to mention the more general issue of freedom of information.

At the root of the privacy issue is an instruction given to post-1901 enumerators to inform citizens that the information gathered would be kept private. Yet the same enumerators were also instructed to justify their fact-gathering by telling census recipients that the information would be useful to historians, and available in the then-open-to-anyone Public Archives in Ottawa. It isn’t clear when or if the census-takers began to inform citizens that the information would be available only to people with the money and intention to manipulate it. Meanwhile, Great Britain releases census data on a 100 year basis, (and is under pressure to release it sooner) while the U.S. makes it available after just 70 years, a period that seems most sensible.

It’s hard not to wonder whether StatsCan’s refusal is chief statistician Ivan Fellegi’s bureaucratic maneuvre against the budget cuts the agency has been treated to in the last decade: give us the money to process the data or else there will be no data—except for those willing to pay, in which case they’ll be allowed to track our ancestors and their predilections right up our posterior parts if they choose. Others, even more cynically, will no doubt ascribe Fellegi’s refusal to sheer bureaucratic laziness.

Whatever the source of the refusal, the federal government seems anxious to keep the ultimate decision out of the court system, setting up a number of extraparliamentary procedures that have included blue-chip panels, social surveys and public meetings in an attempt to resolve the conflict. StatsCan’s sole rationale for sealing the records comes from a series of twenty-two focus groups it held, to all appearances, in order to produce contrary opinion to that issue by the panels and by a $260,000 Environics survey that recommended releasing the 1906 census data by a 2-1 margin, and the twenty-two public meetings that came up with the same opinion. Focus groups may have some value to consumer corporations trying to decide whether to put a widget on the market in a blue or yellow box, but there are so many variables in setting small group focus on a complex issue like the advisability of releasing the census data that any result produced will reflect, more or less exactly, the biases of the controlling agency. And StatsCan doesn’t want to release the 1906 census.

The deepest issue here is cultural, and the two sides of this debate reflect a fundamental and growing rift in our cultural values. Boiled down to its essentials, it’s about the relative importance of our private and public identities: are we citizens, or are we private individuals? The 1983 constitution and the Canadian Bill of Rights shifted the balance to the side of individual rights–mostly, we can agree, to the good. But here, it may have screwed up, as it seems to have with the general densification of copyright and intellectual property law.

Once an individual life ends, it becomes a civil constituent –and a resource—of those who remain alive: that individual’s descendants, and in a more profound sense, the body politic. For StatsCan to confer on the dead a permanent privacy is to condemn them to oblivion, and those who remain after to ignorance and cultural alienation.

If StatsCan’s refusal to release the census is grounded in nothing more than a funding shortfall, the federal government ought to cut the crap and fund the agency properly. If it doesn’t want to, or can’t, the records ought to be turned over to the Mormons, who seem perfectly willing to set up non-political and non-denominational websites so anyone can find out who their ancestors were, where they lived, and where they originated from.

For those of us who find this situation a political travesty and an abrogation of government’s responsibility—given that it creates a situation wherethe only ones with access to our historical records are those able to pay for it, a threat to refuse to cooperate with future censuses may be in order. I’m completely willing to confer my private data on those who come 92 years after me, but only if the basic data is available to everyone, free. If Lever Brothers, Disney and its successors at the end of the century are going to be the only ones with access to it, we will have destroyed our country anyway and there will be no reason to cooperate.

946 w. June 11, 2002


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