The long-form census is your civic duty

NationalPost.com – Opinion/Full Comment
August 9, 2010.   Marc Garneau

The following thought occurred to me in recent days, as arguments have been presented by the government about why the long-form census questionnaire should no longer be mandatory.

To be blunt: I was wondering what all the fuss was about. Why are some citizens arguing that the state has no right to ask certain questions, such as how many bedrooms are in their house? Why is this viewed as an unacceptable intrusion into their lives?

Context is important. If a stranger stopped me in the street and asked me how many bedrooms I had in my house, I would tell him to get lost. However, when the government of Canada asks me the same question in an official census long-form questionnaire, I react in a completely different manner.

Canada is recognized as having one of the top statistics agencies in the world, and I know from my background as an engineer that there are good reasons for asking each question.

Statisticians will carefully review each question to make sure it generates answers pertinent to the information they need — information that guides government policies on everything from veterans programs to language-support services, from housing priorities to public transit planning. I don’t see a bogeyman behind every government form.

Secondly, I expect the government to protect the privacy of that information. Besides, I know that the number of bedrooms I have in my house is no big secret. I could walk around the outside of any Canadians’ home and probably nail the right number of bedrooms most of the time.

Yes, I can imagine other ways of spending my time than filling out the questionnaire, but I also know this will happen to me only a few times in my life.

It seems that the great majority of Canadians feel the same way. They realize that the census is for the greater good — which brings me to the issue of civic duty. Does this concept resonate with Canadians anymore? I believe it does. In fact, 95% of Canadians filled out their 2006 census long-form questionnaire without a fuss.

Personally, this is how I look at it: I live in the best country in the world. I dare you to find a better one in terms of democratic institutions, freedom and fairness, not to mention natural resources and beauty and so many other things we value so much.

Does my country insist that I serve in the military as part of my civic duty? No, it does not. Does my country require me to vote when there is an election? No, it does not (although everyone should do their duty as a citizen and cast a ballot).

What does my country insist that I do? Well, it requires me to pay my taxes and respect the law. If called upon for jury duty, it generally requires me to accept that task. And of course, up until now, it has required me to answer some questions at census time. Is this really asking too much of Canadians? Is this going too far?

The answer is no. This is not a big deal.

The equation in my mind is a simple one, and it has to do with fairness: My country does many things for me and it’s only fair that I reciprocate. I do not start from the premise that the state has no business in my life and that it should get out of my face. That’s a selfish approach.

That might be acceptable if I lived in the woods and never called upon any government services to help me out. But because I do rely on government for a multitude of services, I feel that answering a few questions is not the end of the world. In fact, I insist on it, because I expect my government to make wise decisions based on sound information.

Thank goodness most Canadians agree with me. Thank goodness most Canadians aren’t paranoid and fearful, believing that they owe nothing to their country. Thank goodness that most Canadians believe in the notion of civic duty.

National Post   Marc Garneau is the MP for Westmount-Ville-Marie and the Liberal Critic for Industry, Science and Technology

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