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Tories among hundreds of census supporters who emailed Harper

Prime Minister Stephen Harper responds during Question Period in the House of Commons on Oct. 6, 2010.


Rash. Ridiculous. Totally crazy?

Newly obtained emails show the Prime Minister got a digital earful from baffled and angry Canadians opposed to his government's plan to scrap the mandatory long-form census - including messages sent by several Conservative supporters prepared to switch votes over the move.

"While I have been a supporter of your party since its inception, it is becoming harder and harder to defend that decision," says one email to Stephen Harper.

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"Your actions in regard to the census have cost you my vote," wrote another.

One Conservative backer delivered an ultimatum: reverse the decision or "You will have lost a faithful supporter of your party and policies."

Wrote another: "I'm moving my vote next time around."

A Canadian Press analysis shows more than four-fifths of 293 email messages to Mr. Harper during a single week last summer were critical of the change. Seven per cent supported the government's move, 3 per cent were neutral and 9 per cent expressed no clear opinion.

For privacy reasons, names of correspondents were stripped from the email messages, obtained from the Privy Council Office under the Access to Information Act. The missives landed in Mr. Harper's inbox from July 26 through Aug. 1, a time when the simmering census file boiled over.

Chief statistician Munir Sheikh had just resigned, and Industry Minister Tony Clement had been called before a House of Commons committee to answer questions about the decision. Senior statisticians and the opposition called for a compromise, and the number of organizations opposed to the move continued to grow.

The Conservatives, privately and publicly, repeatedly said over the summer that critics were "special interest groups" that used the data. They also said the census was not something average Canadians cared about, and that only the news media and stakeholders were paying attention in the dog days of summer.

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"I have heard the pundits say that this is not a voting issue," says an email to Mr. Harper from a Conservative supporter in the last several elections. "Well it is for me. I will not be voting Conservative in the next election."

A number of people noted it was the first time they'd been motivated to write to a politician. Many mentioned Mr. Sheikh. Dozens were signed by Canadians purporting to be Conservative party members or supporters. One dismayed writer said he was a long-time friend of Mr. Clement.

The Conservatives have said they decided to replace the mandatory long form with a voluntary survey because they had heard from people who resented being forced to fill out the questionnaire.

Several who sent emails took issue with the notion the mandatory form was intrusive, calling the privacy argument a "bogeyman" and "balderdash."

"I am a lifelong Conservative, a loyal and generous supporter and one of your staunchest advocates ... with extensive training in statistics and research methodology, I cannot understand why our Conservative government would decide to make elements of the census voluntary," wrote one dismayed correspondent.

Some worried it would prevent Mr. Harper's team from ever winning a majority in Parliament.

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"You are losing sight of the big picture," wrote one. "Gutting the census is such a totally negative thrust. And a thrust with no perceptible positive Conservative gain as far as any of us can see."

Others simply scratched their heads over the government's fixation.

"We are rather concerned about the economy, spiralling health care costs, the environment, and Canada's role in Afghanistan - real issues that your government consistently ignores."

One writer said the government had put itself in a "ridiculous and untenable position."

Wondered another: "Once again, sir, is your government TOTALLY crazy?"

Andrew MacDougall, a spokesman for Mr. Harper, said the government wanted to balance the right of government to have the data without forcing or compelling Canadians to divulge personal information.

"That's why we've done what we've done, we've listened to those concerns," Mr. MacDougall said Thursday.

There was a smattering of emailed support for the decision to make the long-form census voluntary.

"Random surveys are carried out all the time by those that wish to gather certain information regarding products, etc.," wrote one person. "They don't need millions of answers for same. Good for the minister Tony Clement."

Mr. Clement said earlier this week that the concern of a single Canadian was enough to compel the government to review one of its policies.

The Liberals released a letter Thursday showing that one of the Conservative government's biggest critics of the mandatory long form vigorously defended it during the last census.

Maxime Bernier, industry minister during the 2006 census process, has said he received an average of 1,000 emails a day against the long form that year.

But at the time, Mr. Bernier wrote to Liberal MP Bryon Wilfert describing the census as essential to government. Mr. Wilfert had written the minister after hearing concerns from constituents about their privacy.

Mr. Bernier told his Commons colleague there was nothing to fear - that all data is kept in strict confidence within Statistics Canada. He went on to say that collecting the information would be extremely difficult by any other means.

Mr. Bernier aid Thursday he has had time since 2006 to reflect on the long-form census, and strongly believes what his government is doing is right.

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