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State and census are so closely intertwined that the very word "statistics" is derived from "state." The census was originally invented to enumerate people for military service and taxation. ("A decree went out from Caesar Augustus …") But in modern democratic societies, the census has become purely a research exercise. The information is not collected to enumerate identified individuals but to construct anonymous databases used for further research.

The norm for research with human subjects in a free society is informed consent. If I, as a political scientist, want to collect information from voters, I can't force them to participate in my survey; I have to get their agreement. Through its granting agencies, the government of Canada has taken vigorous steps to make sure the research community respects the rule of informed consent, which, in turn, invites the question: Why shouldn't government research adhere to the same standard?

One answer, surely correct up to a point, is that government needs certain information to fulfill its constitutional and legislated responsibilities. Constituency boundaries cannot be fairly drawn, and fiscal transfers cannot be equitably carried out, unless the government knows how many people live in which locations. Similarly, bilingual districts cannot be created and second-language services provided unless the government has statistics on the numbers and location of minority-language speakers.

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Such rationales carry us through the short-form census but break down on some of the long-form questions. For example, why does government need to know how many hours a week I spend on unpaid housework? (Full disclosure: I go fishing while my wife picks Saskatoon berries so we can eat a pure natural diet.) Because the census exists for justifiable but limited reasons, it tends to morph into a convenient vehicle for busybody questions that government has no need and right to ask. If researchers want to study household time budgets, let them administer their own surveys.

The Conservative government was, indeed, wrong in the way it started the great census debate. Its reforms were not thought through, it should have consulted the user groups created through so many decades of providing cheap data, and it should have had a more coherent communications plan. (Any plan would have been an improvement.) But the fact that the government has made mistakes does not mean that everything the critics say is right. Two strands of critique are of particular concern.

One is the view that we should just shut up and do what Statistics Canada tells us to do - perhaps an appropriate position to take in 19th-century Prussia but surely not in 21st-century Canada. Even more distressing is the chatter from opposition politicians about an independent civil service. Constitutional democracy is supposed to make bureaucracy serve the public through the parliamentary doctrines of responsible government and ministerial responsibility. What's worse than ill-advised political interference in public administration? Exemption of the civil service from political oversight.

The government's Panglossian critics have been quick to say that the Canadian census, like our health care, is the best in the world; but users of census data know there are major problems with some of the long-form results, due to the wording of the questions. For example, the number of self-identified Métis jumped by a third from 2001 to 2006 - far beyond the possibilities of demographic growth. And Statistics Canada has no clear idea of the number of status Indians because 22 first nations refused full co-operation with the 2006 census (down from 77 in 1996 but still enough to cause considerable uncertainty).

We need some rational debate, maybe even a government task force, on the proper shape of the census in the electronic age. Statistics Canada still relies on 20th-century technology (mailed questionnaires) as well as 19th-century technology (interviewers at the door) to gather information. How about some 21st-century technology? If we can create an electronic voters list, can we not carry out at least part of the census electronically?

Several European countries have abolished the traditional census. They have systems of compulsory registration and personal ID cards that can effectively substitute for the census but are politically unacceptable in North America. Yet, Britain's coalition government plans to abolish its registry and ID cards immediately, and the census in 2021; at the very least, we should be watching to learn from this experiment.

Tom Flanagan is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former Conservative campaign manager.

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