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dave obee A tug-of-war between access and privacy
January, 2001

By Dave Obee

Itís hard to believe, at the dawn of a new century, that weíre still arguing about what to do with some information our government collected in 1906.

But we are. Canadaís old census records are the prize in a tug-of-war pitting privacy against access.

Every five years, Canadians fill out forms giving all kinds of information about who we are. Statistics Canada distills the raw information into a variety of reports, then locks the forms into a storage vault somewhere.

As time passes, those old forms increase in value to genealogists, historians and demographic researchers. On a person-by-person basis, they come to represent a snapshot of one day, many years previous, and provide a fascinating look at the way we were. They are the basis for countless historic works and family histories, and allow us to see the past with clearer vision.

There is no comparable source of historic information.

Researchers have been using microfilmed copies of old Canadian census returns for decades. The 1901 census was made public in 1993, under a 92-year-wait rule that had been introduced 10 years earlier.

The next one due for release was the 1906 census, which was only taken in the Prairie provinces. If the old schedule had been followed, it would have been released in 1998. But itís still locked away. The 1911 census, covering all of Canada, would be released in 2003, but unless things change, it will stay out of sight as well.

What happened? Concerns about privacy, raised by Canadaís privacy commissioner as well as officials at Statistics Canada. They cite a variety of assurances, given to Canadians from 1905 on, that information collected in a census would be confidential. And, according to some in government, a promise is forever.

Not so, say researchers who want to use the old documents. They read those old assurances a bit differently. They say our forefathers were only worried about enumerators blabbing to the neighbours, the military or the taxman. That doesnít mean the information should stay sealed for all time.

The tug-of-war over the old returns started in the mid í90s, when researchers using the 1901 census realized they wouldnít be able to see the subsequent ones.

Gordon Watts, of Port Coquitlam, who is leading the fight to open the old records, and several others from across the country gathered as much information as they could to back up their demand that the census records be unlocked. The officials holding the keys wouldnít back down.

In 1999, the government appointed a five-member Expert Panel on Access to Historical Census Records, which put together a comprehensive report that was released last month.

The report recommends, in simple terms, that the vault be opened. The panel said the 1906 census should be released immediately, with the rest to follow 92 years after the information was gathered. It urged the government to make whatever legislative changes are needed to ensure the census returns will be made public.

One key point to remember: old census information has been made public for years without causing rioting in the streets.

Canadians are already allowed to see all the surviving census material up to 1901. Returns from Newfoundland up to 1945 were released to the public soon after that province joined Confederation in 1949. No problems have been reported. And itís doubtful anyone has refused to complete a modern-day questionnaire because the historic ones were available at the local library.

Next year is a great one for researchers, with the release of the 1930 census of the United States (which has 72-year rule) and of the 1901 census for England, Scotland and Wales, where the wait is 100 years.

The archives in these countries have never had a complaint about the release of this material. That was one of the discoveries of the expert panel.

The governmentís response to the panelís report was muted at best. Brian Tobin, the minister responsible for Statistics Canada, said the issues at stake are "complex and far-reaching," and called for -- wait for it -- further "broad-based consultation" with Canadians. This will take place, he said, as part of an administrative and legislative review of the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act.

Tobin said the government is committed to protecting the rights of Canadians who were assured of confidentiality in 1911, and recognizes the needs of those who want access to do research. It might be argued, of course, that most of the people enumerated in 1911 are no longer with us, so probably arenít all that concerned about confidentiality any more.

Tobin didnít even mention the 1906 census, the one that would qualify for immediate release if the old rules were being followed. Of course, thatís the census that covered only parts of the Prairies. Maybe Tobin should have a chat with Stephane Dion, the cabinet minister whoís trying to figure out why the West is feeling alienated these days.

Itís hard to imagine what our great-grandparents, or any of our other relatives who filled out those forms so many years ago, would have thought of the debate thatís raging today. And itís hard to believe the debate is still going on.

Dave Obee is editorial page editor of the Times Colonist newspaper in Victoria, B.C. This column appeared in the Times Colonist on Sunday, January 7, 2001. It also appeared in the Calgary Herald and several other newspapers across Canada.

Reprinted courtesy the Times Colonist


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