How we lost count of some of our most marginalized citizens

TheStar.com – News/Insight – Without the long-form census, social planners no longer know what’s happening in their communities.
Dec 06 2013.   By: Michael Valpy

Roderick Ryner thinks about how he lost track of his poor, his unemployed, his sick and disabled and the people struggling with their schooling in the northern Ontario district of Cochrane.

“I was shocked that this would happen,” Ryner says.

He’s the regional coordinator for the Cochrane District Social Planning Council, covering an economically struggling and volatile area just slightly smaller than Michigan and touching the lives of more than 80,000 people in communities carved out of the boreal forest reaching up to Hudson’s Bay.

He’s referring to data he no longer has from the long-form census that Ottawa discontinued in 2010, shortly before the 2011 census was taken — data he uses to advise municipal, provincial and federal governments and community leaders and six Cree bands about what services they need to provide to the district’s inhabitants.

It’s no rhetorical lament that Ryner is offering up.

Without data from the detailed (and compulsory) long-form census now replaced by a voluntary National Household Survey, he can no longer accurately calculate what is happening to any of the numbers his social planning council tries to influence: unemployment, educational attainment, health status, social assistance — “it goes right across the board.”

He has reports, for example, that psychiatrict disorders are on the rise because of an increase in the numbers of people qualifying for disability support but he cannot pinpoint where, or whether, the increase is happening or easily look for explanations. It’s as if he’s been blindfolded.

“It’s not only an issue of trying to do my work and inform a group of community leaders so that they can do their work by putting good information before them,” Ryner says in an interview. “It’s the psychological impact on me. And I’m sure on everybody. My emotion response is a sense of grief and lost and a sense of sadness.”

At an intellectual level, he says, it’s baffling because he cannot understand why such a valuable mechanism on the status of the population would be interfered with.

“When you talk about the impact on social cohesion, it’s very disconcerting, eh?”

This is not just one social planner from northern Ontario speaking out.

The Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton says it’s looking at “black holes” in data from many of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods. Montreal officials have raised the same concerns. Officials from the Manitoba government have said the National Household Survey has produced faulty data for some of Winnipeg’s most economically and socially troubled districts. And so it goes across the country.

The impact on social cohesion that Ryner refers to is this: with the compulsory long-form census removed, many of Canada’s most marginalized people have not filled out its voluntary replacement. As a result, they’ve effectively hidden themselves from their fellow citizens, from their communities and from their governments.

“The long-form census provided the most accurate systemic feedback that we had for everybody,” Ryner says.

It presented historical data. It showed him what impact government and community policies were having. “It showed us all that we do in terms of social programs, in terms of building community, so many measures in terms of what’s important and healthy about the activities of Canadians, and the effctiveness of our government, and then all of a sudden . . . I’m flabbergasted.”

So when he starts wondering why the government killed off the long-form census (the reason given is that its questions were too intrusive), he finds himself thinking cynically.

“Part of me intellectually thinks, well, they don’t want to know. They don’t want to know because the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer and they don’t really want to have information about that.”

Several of the country’s leading scholars on public public policy have just brought out a book on rising inequality in Canada, Inequality and the Fading of Redistributive Politics. What they say, in so many words, is that it’s deliberate. It’s being driven by government tax policies that favour the wealthy, it’s being driven by a weakening of redistributive politics that applies the state’s revenue resources to cushion the vulnerable from economic storms and droughts, it’s been driven by the rise of business influence on policy decision-makers.

“The celebration of Canada as the kinder and gentler nation on the North American continent is now fading,” says the book’s editors, Keith Banting, Queen’s Research Chair in Public Policy at Queen’s University in Kingston, and John Myles, senior fellow at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto.

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