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(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

The long form will return. Voters won't Add to ...

It's been a fine summer for Canadian democracy.

No, not parliamentary democracy, since Parliament was not in session and the who's up/who's down of parliamentary punditry/polling is of even less relevance and interest in summer than the rest of the year. No, it's been a fine summer because civic society overwhelmingly rose up against the assault on reason and the ephemeral triumph of ideology over fact reflected in the Harper government's destruction of Statistics Canada's long-form census.

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The Harper government - that is, the Prime Minister and his entourage - tried to slip a fast one past Canadians. It announced the end of the long form in the dead of summer, on a Friday to boot, as a sop to their far-right core constituency.

They must have figured no one would be paying attention, so they could take out their dislike of Statistics Canada when no one was looking - a dislike grounded in their blinkered belief that the agency collects facts that are then used by pressure groups, often of the social activist variety, that want more and bigger government.

Canadian civic society immediately smelled a rat. At last count - the figures are provided by the redoubtable retired professor William Stanbury - more than 200 groups and institutions publicly oppose the Harper policy, while three support it.

The three are fringe, right-wing institutions: the Fraser Institute, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the National Citizens Coalition, the little organization for which Stephen Harper himself once toiled in a Calgary office of two people (himself and a secretary). There've been a few supportive, far-right media shills, of course. But that's been it.

Imagine. Every religious group opposed the Harper assault, as did business organizations representing everything from Bay Street to mom-and-pop stores, universities, trade unions, social groups, aboriginals, minority-language groups - the list goes on and on. Even international statistics experts, who recently gathered in Vancouver for a conference, condemned the Harper decision.

Canadians witnessed the disgusting spectacle of careerist ministers - Industry's Tony Clement in the lead - tap dancing to the Prime Minister's tune. Their justification for dispensing with the long form - the best chance of getting the most accurate data - was a mélange of distortions, misrepresentations and exaggerations of so gross a kind that Canadians recoiled in indignation.

To wit: Statistics Canada officials do not show up at people's homes at 10 p.m. No one has gone to prison for failing to fill out the long-form census, despite ministerial assertions that jail terms await the recalcitrant. A voluntary form is not an acceptable substitute for a mandatory long form, a Clementism so offensive that it forced the head of Statistics Canada, Munir Sheikh, to quit. Canadians saw honour in Mr. Sheikh's resignation, although he really had no choice, so distorted were the Clementisms.

The assault on reason, of course, has short-term, baleful consequences. The new, voluntary methodology will compromise not only the next sampling but ruin the long-term comparability of data, as every statistician in Canada has underscored.

Worse, in a society that doesn't question Statistics Canada data and thus can advance to arguing about what should be done based on accepted data, arguments will now revert to the reliability of the data.

Such are the consequences of having people in government who live in a world of political spin and who prefer ideology over data - who claim, for example, that statistics showing a decline in crime rates are not reliable because they don't fit the government's "tough on crime" agenda, or who say the situation in Afghanistan is improving despite the fact that the past two months have been the most violent since the war began.

The census debate, so provocative and so needless but for the exigencies of ideology, roused civic society as few decisions have done in recent decades. The census will lodge itself in a corner of the electorate's collective memory as a talisman for what the Harperites might do if given a freer rein and, as such, has ruined what little chance they had of achieving a majority.

Canadian democracy, in this long-term sense, has triumphed by rejecting ideology over reason. Some day, the long-form census will return.

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