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Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Mandatory Long Form Census and Question 33

I have been irked beyond belief at the conservative government's decision to end the mandatory long form census. I've written letters and op ed pieces. I've typed my little fingers to the bone trying to protect the quality of information Canadians use to determine public policy on health, safety, and education, to proect the quality of information used by businesses and non-profits and charities to determine products, programs and placement. As an educator, the move astonishes me. Why would anyone want to make Canadians dumber?

And now this. To bring an end to the census fiasco and help Mr. Harper’s government save face, the National Statistics Council (a government appointed board to advise the Chief Statistician) suggests eliminating question 33 which asks how much time is spent by household members on unpaid work, from house and yard work to caring for children and seniors. Apparently, this question raises the hackles of the three people who have lodged complaints with the privacy commissioner and the alleged others who used less official and conveniently anecdotal channels to do so.

Historically, the issue of unpaid work has been a critical measure in revealing gender inequity. Time use surveys consistently show that unpaid work is done mostly by women. When work is unpaid, it is unrecognized in GDP calculations. In the words of economist Marilyn Waring, women and their work literally end up counting for nothing. This leaves women without adequate resources for financial independence, without pensions and without power. We know that the status of women can be as significant a predictor of quality of life as GDP in the same way that we know that nothing is more effective in raising a community out of poverty than providing education for its girls and women. When women win, we all win.

Given this, improving the status of women has been an important goal in public policy. Until recently, Canada has dedicated increasing resources to improving women’s status. Eliminating question 33 means our success or failure in achieving gender equity becomes more difficult to assess.

In the census brouhaha, the government has been accused of preferring ignorance over knowledge so that it can implement ideologically driven policy. To be fair, Mr. Harper’s government has never let facts be a barrier to implementing ideologically based policy, even when those facts were readily available for any Canadian to see. The examples are many. In an era in which crime has been in steady decline, they fear monger and raise the spectre of notorious criminals to justify their “tough on crime” agenda and, most recently, legislation that will erode universal access to pension. In another example, funding and program cuts to Environment Canada took place just as our need to monitor the effects of climate change and increasingly severe storms became more critical than ever.

I suspect that the problem some people have with question 33 is not so much a concern for their privacy as a worry they may be exposed as slackers. No one wants to admit they’re not pulling their weight, let alone provide proof. But trends in unpaid work are changing. We are still far from achieving gender equity on this front, and women still do more than their fair share at home, but men are doing slightly more unpaid work these days while women’s participation in the paid labour force is rising. Statistics Canada identified this trend based on census data. A potential conclusion is that government efforts directed towards increasing gender equity are working, if slowly.

The only people who would want to suppress knowledge of this trend are those who don’t like it, don’t want to ensure that movement towards gender equity continues, don’t want to help find the remaining barriers or be asked to do something about the glacial pace of change.

Connecting the dots, we can add this to a long list of actions that Mr. Harper’s government has taken against women. He effectively shut down Status of Women Canada and removed funding from women’s groups dedicated to giving women a voice in Canada, groups like the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, the Alberta Network of Immigrant Women, the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses and Womenspace Resource Centre in Lethbridge, Alberta, an organization that, among other things, taught women to manage their finances. If women continue doing unpaid work rather than paid work or if our trends revert because we fail to continue to implement public policy fostering equity because no data tells us it is necessary, women won’t have any finances to manage.

Eliminating question 33 is not about protecting privacy; it’s about protecting patriarchy. Once again, it is women’s interests that will be thrown under the bus if this compromise is accepted.

For more on this issue, check out Mark Saurette's wonderful (long) article on the philosophy that justifies this ludicrous change.

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