EXTRACTS FROM HANSARD -- PROCEEDINGS OF CANADA'S SENATE :
The following extract has been taken from Hansard Records of Canada's Senate:
Debates of the Senate (Hansard)
1st Session, 36th Parliament,
Volume 137, Issue 148
Thursday, June 10, 1999
The Honourable Gildas L. Molgat, Speaker
Access to Census Information
Inquiry -- Debate Concluded
On the Order:
Resuming debate on the inquiry of the Honourable Senator Milne calling the attention of the Senate to the lack of access to the 1906 and all subsequent censuses caused by an Act of Parliament adopted in 1906 under the Government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier.-(Honourable Senator Johnson)
Hon. Lorna Milne: Honourable senators, on November 17 of last year, I spoke about access to census information.
The Hon. the Speaker: Honourable senators, I must warn the Senate that if the Honourable Senator Milne speaks now, her speech will have the effect of closing the debate on this inquiry.
Senator Milne: I spoke to Senator Johnson, and she is not prepared to speak at this point. She will speak in the fall, when I revive the matter.
Hon. Eymard G. Corbin: Honourable senators, I had indicated to the honourable senator that I wished to say a word or two on this matter, but I was waiting for Senator Johnson's speech.
If I may be allowed a very brief comment, I support the initiative. I was at one time an active genealogist. I have had opportunities to check records left and right in archives, including very interesting and revealing Canadian census records regarding my own ancestors. Everyone wants to do that. I find it incredible that we would now bring down a stone wall on the possibilities and opportunities to examine these old records. I think Statistics Canada is going slightly overboard and is slightly overzealous in its wish, I presume, to protect certain privacy rights or private matters.
I could not care less if someone discovered something about some of my ancestors not being too Catholic, or whatever. What is done is done. This is a very great activity with a number of individuals, especially retired people who now have time to thumb through records and old documents. I would not qualify it as an industry or a growth industry, since it has been with us for many years. The information one digs up in the examination of these records is intellectually stimulating in more ways than one.
To put it simply, I support Senator Milne's initiatives as strongly as I can, even though I have not provided myself with a written text today.
Go ahead and slam it, senator. You're right on!
The Hon. the Speaker: Does any other honourable senator wish to speak before the Honourable Senator Milne closes the debate? If not, please proceed, Senator Milne.
Senator Milne: Honourable senators, I appreciate very much Senator Corbin's input into the debate.
As has been pointed out, all census returns after 1901 will never be released to the public. Beginning with the 1906 western census, the Statistics Act promised that the information collected was to be kept secret. Statistics Canada has interpreted this guarantee of secrecy to be for eternity, meaning that the census returns after 1901 will never be made available to the public for research purposes.
Since my speech, other honourable senators in this place have discussed various aspects of this issue, including Senator Corbin today. Everyone has added important and compelling reasons why census returns should be released for public consultation, and I thank them all for their input.
I have also received hundreds of letters and e-mails from across the country. I have not received one single letter from a member of the public opposing the release of the post-1901 census returns because of privacy concerns.
Recently, I attended and spoke to the Ontario Genealogical Society annual meeting in Toronto as their lead speaker. The response I received from the members was incredible, and the credit they are bestowing on the Senate is gratifying. After my speech, many members came to me to express how important this access to census records is to them and to their communities.
There is one story in particular that I would like to share with you today. One lawyer, Catherine Bray, took a case on behalf of the Ontario Historical Society versus the Town of Markham. A developer was seeking permission from the town to move a pioneer cemetery to let him build one more townhouse onto the end of the string he was currently building. Through the use of old census records, Ms Bray was able to build a case to not only to stop the developer but to protect the cemetery as well. It now stands as a lasting legacy to the first inhabitants of that area.
Today, I should like to explore what this guarantee of "secrecy" really means. If a valuable source of history is being denied to Canadians because of a guarantee of secrecy, we must understand exactly what was meant by "secrecy." What was being promised to people under the guarantee of secrecy at that time?
In 1906 and 1911, the secrecy guarantee was contained in regulations by Orders in Council that have the force of law, as we all know. The Orders in Council instructed commissioners to guarantee to census respondents that:
The facts and statistics of the census may not be used except for statistical compilation, and positive assurance should be given on this point if a fear is entertained by any person that they may be used for taxation or any other purpose.
It is interesting to note that this "promise of secrecy" was embedded in a section entitled "Instructions for Enumerators." If we look at the Orders in Council as a whole, the idea of secrecy appears attached to the people who are collecting the information. In fact, the people answering the questions likely did not know that the information they provided would be kept secret forever. Only someone who expressed fear that his information would be used for taxation or any other purpose would be informed that the people who collected the information had to keep it secret.
In addition, newspaper articles written around the time of census day in the early part of this century reveal how the idea of secrecy was perceived at that time. I have researched articles that were written around census day in the years 1906, 1911, 1921 and 1931. The few articles that mention secrecy of census information are very telling.
An article in the Montreal Gazette on census day in 1911 reports on the conduct of the enumerators and notes that:
Each one of these men knew what he had to do, and he was aware that nothing was to be gained by any but polite and discreet methods on his part.
For example, while it would be necessary to enquire about illness and physical or mental incapacity in a family, all could rest assured that such information was absolutely private, each official sworn to perform his duties for the Government and no one else.
Here, secrecy appears to mean that the people who collected the information were not permitted to divulge it.
Another reference to the guarantee of secrecy appears in The Globe on the eve of the census in 1931. The article mentioned that 1931 was the first time that figures were collected on the number of unemployed persons in the country, the reasons they were out of work and the length of time. The article describes that:
...in order to ameliorate the irritation caused -
Honourable senators, there is a huge leap between guaranteeing that census information will not be used to collect outstanding radio licence fees and guaranteeing that information will never be released to the public as an historic document, even nearly a century after that information was collected.
- by -
- this official dissection of personal affairs, the Department of Trades and Commerce has explained the answers will be kept secret even from other departments. For instance, the question "Have you a radio?", may be answered frankly with no fear that the Government Radio Branch later on will begin checking up on unpaid radio licence fees.
The promise of secrecy appeared to involve radio fees rather than an ironclad protection of the right to personal privacy as it is conceived of to today. Even the Hansard debates leading up to the passing of the 1905 and the 1918 legislation do not include any discussion whatsoever about the need to restrict access to the census returns forever.
In fact, the primary concern of legislators at that time was the time delay between census day and the release of the compiled statistics. The cost of administrating the census was another concern.
The examples I have just provided are not extensive. Nevertheless, they provide us with some insight. They cast light upon the sorts of things that the guarantee of secrecy may have encompassed in the early years of this century. If the right to secrecy at that time meant that the individual respondents were protected from giving the information and having it used to their detriment by other government departments, or if the right to secrecy meant that the people who collected the census information were required to keep the information confidential, this is important to recognize. There can be no question that the current state of the law ensures that the government upholds the guarantee of the right to secrecy of census information.
In fact, if the only way to uphold that promise of secrecy were to forever bar the release of census returns, I could understand continuing with the current scenario. However, I must tell you, honourable senators, that in this day of computerized records when it is estimated that 95 per cent of the intimate details of a person's life are on record somewhere, where your American Express card or your Visa card not only records where you shop but what route you normally follow through the local mall, which stores you prefer, who you phone and how often, who your doctor or dentist is, and what papers and magazines you read; in an era when almost everything about an individual is known and often shared or sold by private consortiums, it seems a bit ridiculous to be debating a somewhat spurious and indirect guarantee of secrecy forever by the Canadian governments of 1906 and 1911.
Unfortunately, this extreme position comes at a great cost - the loss of an important source of almost a century of Canadian history. After examining what the guarantee of secrecy likely meant to census respondents, I feel that this promise can be honoured with less extreme measures than locking away the information of this immense historical value forever.
Honourable senators, I share this view with many others. In a letter to Minister Manley, Althea Douglas asked the minister to consider extending the time limit:
...but do not close forever the century that was said to belong to Canada.
Gregory Kealey, president of the Canadian Historical Society, recently wrote in a letter to Minister Manley, and copied to me:
...this census material is absolutely fundamental to our understanding of 20th century Canada and it must be made available so that researchers can critically address and explain many of the significant themes, trends and issues in Canadian history over the past century.
I feel that forever barring the census returns from public access is too severe, especially when weighed against the historical value of the records and the fact that never releasing them may deny Canadians an important part of their heritage.
I warn you that I will have more to say on this important issue in one way or another when we all meet again in the fall.
Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!
The Hon. the Speaker: Honourable senators, if no other senator wishes to speak, this inquiry is considered debated.