At census time, count my family out

In May, I received a letter of sorts from Anil Arora, Chief Statistician of Canada, addressed to “Dear Resident.” Directly under the large, bold words “2021 Census.’ Anil, or someone at StatsCan, had authorized the following in smaller bold type: “Complete your questionnaire by May 11, 2021.”

The main definition of “questionnaire” offered by Merriam-Webster is “a set of questions for obtaining statistically useful or personal information from individuals.” That doesn’t sound ominous. However, Anil’s follow-up sentence has shades of a poster nailed to a tree in the Old West: “Completion of the census questionnaire is required by law.”

Here’s what adds: The Statistics Act “stipulates that a person who refuses to complete a census questionnaire can be fined up to $500. The court may also require the completion of the census questionnaire.”

Prior to the 2016 census, the court could send you to jail for non-compliance. This was amended to exclude prison time, but include a fine and a criminal record, whatever the latter means. When you try to cross from Sarnia to Port Huron, does a border guard see “Criminal Record … resistance to Statistics Canada” and escort you to a special building?

Back in 1960 census, my father, a rangy, opinionated cattleman, decided some of the questions on the census were none of the government’s business. He didn’t submit. This act of passive resistance triggered a series of visitors from what was then called the Dominion Bureau of Statistics. Each visitor was of senior rank to the last. They tried arguments similar to the one Anil Arora uses in his letter: “Census information is important for you and your community and is used to plan services that support employment, schools, public transportation and hospitals.”

When my old man proved unswayable, one visitor tried to pacify him by suggesting that while my father had to complete the census, he did not have to tell the truth when he answered every question. They hadn’t anticipated the fierce hostility such a gambit could arouse in a rural man of Irish and Scottish descent who attended Argyle Presbyterian Church, Crinan.

Eventually, though, with jail time in the offing, my dad folded.

Fast forward to 2021. The final section of the questionnaire includes an option to comment. So I did: “The current federal deficit is a huge concern. And it should not be illegal to refuse to answer census questions.”

Two sentences for my dad.

Anil Arora has not replied.

This lack of a response might be explained by the following claim in his letter: “By law, your responses will be kept confidential.” I’m not so sure. The government required me to fill in my name, address, telephone number, email address, how many people are in my house, some details about race, what sex I was at birth, what gender, if any, I now self-assign and how much I pay annually for water and sewer. In a different department, they have my social insurance and bank account numbers.

Anil might reply that he never said I would remain anonymous. It’s my answers that are confidential. We shall see.

In the 2021 census, I did follow a suggestion by that 1960 visitor from the Dominion Census Bureau. When asked what I think the value of my home currently is, I filled in a number. Whether that number is what I really think, the StatsCan bureaucrats may discern when they show up to escort me to a special building.

“Are you the son of Harold M. Carroll? We have a file.”