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Globe Editorial

Remove the jail threat to resolve census woes Add to ...

The National Statistics Council has provided a middle way that should encourage the federal government to relent on its drastic plan to alter the Canadian census.

The possibility of a jail sentence for someone who refuses to take part in the census is hardly more than theoretical, which has rarely, if ever, been used, but it has become a flashpoint for some people who have a particularly intense attachment to their privacy and indeed to their liberty. The NSC observes that other countries have conducted entirely effective censuses without even a remote threat of jail.

The way the penalty for non-compliance with the census is set up in the Statistics Act marks it as minor. There is a fine of up to $500 or a jail sentence of up to six months. Under the Criminal Code, the maximum jail term for summary-conviction offences - "summary" in the sense of brief or abridged court procedure for lesser infractions - is likewise six months; the Statistics Act has evidently followed the Code's model. Such provisions are usually merely a backup alternative to a fine when someone who has been convicted of what would in the United States be called a misdemeanour cannot afford to pay any money at all.

But for otherwise law-abiding citizens, including those who could afford to pay moderate fines, the very idea of any jail time is provocative.

Underlining the importance of privacy, the NSC recommends preserving potential jail terms for those who breach the confidentiality of the census.

Moreover, the NSC has articulated a sensible framework for considering whether questions on the mandatory long form are intrusive and whether they are likely to yield valuable information that would be missed on voluntary surveys.

As the NSC says, it is too late for a substantial reform of the 2011 census, but this summer's controversy may yet lead to a better 2016 census.

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