by Adam Allouba*
to Count! The Census and State Coercion (Print Version)
Le Québécois Libre, August
15, 2010, No 280.
Early summer rarely brings with it political drama, but on June 29 of
this year, the Harper government served it up by announcing that it
abolish the mandatory long-form census (the short-form census would
remain mandatory). The decision has not been well-received, to put it
gently. Opposition has come from virtually all quarters: the proposal
has brought together
think tanks and even
a website that makes money selling old census information.
The debate seems to have focused largely on whether or not switching to
a voluntary survey will compromise the integrity and utility of the data
collected. Regrettably, however, little of the commentary has considered
what it means to have a mandatory census and what, exactly, it implies.
What does it mean to have a mandatory census? How do we justify it? And
do we really want the census to be “mandatory”?
The Value of the Census
The census is clearly useful to a great many people. Not only government
planners use the information it collects; organizations as disparate as
charities, businesses, community organizations, and academics rely
heavily on what is truly the mother of all databases on Canadians.
Everything from marketing campaigns to scholarly research would be
affected by its loss. No reasonable person contends that the data is not
Moreover, the government’s claims that a voluntary survey can provide
the same robust results as a mandatory one are dubious at best.
Selection bias would surely skew the data. Finally, the census is
totally anonymous and Statistics Canada
fiercely guards the privacy of respondents. In other words, we need
the information, this is the only way to get it, and it’s as safe as
possible. Case closed?
What is Coercion?
The Random House Dictionary
coercion as “the act of coercing; use of force or intimidation to
obtain compliance” or as “force or the power to use force in gaining
compliance, as by a government or police force.” This “coercion”
business certainly sounds unpleasant.
So how is the census coercive? Under
31 of the Statistics Act, anyone who fails to answer a
question under that legislation truthfully (including the census) is
liable to a fine of up to $500, three months in jail, or both. The
threat of sanctions marks the difference between a mandatory survey and
a voluntary one. But does anyone really pay a fine for ignoring
the census? Has anyone ever gone to jail for such an offence?
Good questions, to which I’ll return later.
But for now, consider the full meaning of those words in the
Statistics Act. The use of information that has been extracted under
the threat of force seems to be on uncertain moral ground. Could a
private business gather information for a marketing campaign by
threatening respondents? Would an ethics review sanction academic
research that proposed to physically compel prospective subjects to
complete a survey? Could a private school plan its future growth by
ordering people in its neighbourhood to divulge information on
themselves and their families? And yet, these outrageous methods become
acceptable when used indirectly, by accessing census data. They can’t
force people to answer their questions, but they can get the state to do
so and then enjoy the spoils.
For whatever reason, most people believe that deploying force against
other human beings becomes moral when it is government, rather than
private actors, that does the deploying. The distinction mystifies me,
but I accept that I’m in the minority. What I do not accept, however, is
a refusal to acknowledge that forcing people to do something is not a
decision to be taken lightly. Compelling behaviour is a weighty matter
and should only be used as a last recourse and after careful
consideration of every possible alternative.
So what of the census? Do the decision’s critics appreciate the gravity
of forcing people to answer the government’s questions? Let’s ask them
what they think:
“The census system relies on everyone being willing to make the
occasional small, anonymous sacrifice […] Surely if there’s a place
for a little ‘coercion,’ in the direct service of peace, order and
good government, it’s there?”
Tabatha Southey, The Globe and Mail
“Hearing the government’s mantra that the long-form census questions
are too ‘intrusive’ and that there are too many of them, Canadians
witnessed the triumph of ultraconservative ideology over science and
Josée Legault, The Montreal Gazette
“This is a fight about rational decision-making that requires the
best fact-based evidence available against a reliance on ideological
nostrums that scorn facts and reason when they stand in the way of
Jeffrey Simpson, The Globe and Mail
“There is a libertarian case to be made against the census, but it
is only convincing in the simple and simplistic world of Ayn Rand
novels. The one we live in is a [sic] much more complicated,
nuanced and interesting. It’s no place for glib, cookie-cutter
Economist Stephen Gordon
“In times like these, when crass ideology can be peddled openly even
at the highest levels, moves such as this can become public policy
without so much as a second thought. There is no justification for
the cancellation of the long-form census.”
Christopher Hume, The Toronto Star
These extracts represent an apparently broad consensus among critics
of the government’s move. The contempt and condescension are palpable;
not only is the decision incorrect, but (as Hume puts it) there is no
possible justification for it. All of the arguments are with them,
and none are against them. On one side are science and reason; on
the other, ignorance and an irrational mob. The correct decision is
plain to all but the most obtuse.
The coercive power of the state goes either unmentioned or, as in
Southey’s formulation, is brought up as a joke, complete with scare
quotes. Threatening an individual’s property or freedom of movement is
shrugged off as a bogey man that should concern only the paranoid. There
is not a hint of acknowledgement that such a thing is of the utmost
seriousness and a matter to be justified only with the greatest
difficulty.(1) The disdain
for the most basic human right—the right to be left alone to live your
life in peace—is appalling.
But They Don’t Mean it…
As alluded to earlier, the penalties in the Statistics Act are in
truth more an illusion than a threat. It seems that virtually no one
actually gets fined, much less jailed, for failure to comply. In 2006,
it was reported that
250,000 malingering Albertans who failed to return their census
forms were hit with… a knock on the door asking them to comply. A grand
64 Canadians were prosecuted for non-compliance.
This talking point has featured prominently in criticism of the
government’s decision. As
one critic put it, “Nobody has gone to jail for refusing to fill out
the census and nobody ever will.” He suggests simply amending the law to
eliminate the threat of prison while keeping the fine. This may seem
like a compromise, but it would be a poor one. For example, what happens
to those who refuse to pay, especially if they have no property to seize
More importantly, however, this argument raises the question: do these
people want a mandatory census or not? If so, then they should have the
courage of their convictions. If
is to be believed, about 2.5 million homes received the long-form census
in 2006 (20% of the 12.7 million homes in Canada). The
reported response rate of 97% leaves about 76,000 uncompleted
forms—without even counting those who lie on their forms (or do we
Canadians really have
21,000 Jedi Knights living among us?). Unless I’m missing something,
64 prosecutions out of a minimum of 76,000 violations mean that at least
99.92% of scofflaws are getting away with it.
In effect, this token level of enforcement means that we already
have a voluntary census, and all the problems that come with it. Anyone
who truly believes that the census should be mandatory ought to call for
prosecutors to fine these noncompliant respondents and consider whether
it’s time to finally set an example by tossing someone in a cage.
That would certainly get everyone’s attention and should get
response rates moving in the right direction.
As an added benefit, such a move would strengthen the rule of law by
avoiding selective enforcement of rules that are supposed to apply to
everyone. For example, in 2006 several people who refused to fill in the
census because Lockheed-Martin was a sub-contractor on the project were
prosecuted, whereas an estimated 35,000 natives were left alone despite
their own failure to complete the form. Statistics Canada explained that
some reserves refused to allow the organization’s workers onto their
But since no one is suggesting anything like mass prosecutions, I’m left
wondering what the critics actually want. Their outrage over ending the
census’s mandatory nature would be more convincing had they, in years
past, evidenced some concern over the masses of census forms that went
straight from the mailbox to the recycling bin (or, heaven forbid, the
Incidentally, the criticisms provide a window into the statist mindset:
either something is mandatory, in which case it happens, or it’s
voluntary, in which case it doesn’t. Even with a near-zero chance of
prosecution and no monetary reward at stake, 97% of us take the time to
fill out the form and return it. That suggests that other incentives are
at work, whether a desire to be a good citizen, social guilt, or
something else. Sometimes people do things without being forced.
All This For What?
What’s perhaps most maddening is that the long-form census does not rank
in the top 1,000 issues on which I want to see the government adopt a
dogmatic libertarian position. Heading the list would be drug
legalization, civil liberties, economic regulation, barriers to trade,
police powers and the income tax. The long-form census might actually be,
quite literally, the least of my concerns.
Given its other policies, it is baffling to see this government get on
its libertarian horse over a poorly-enforced survey. Still, I’ll take
what’s offered, and even a minute decrease in state power is something.
But even if the decision is reversed, the controversy might just get
some people thinking about the nature of coercion and even asking
whether it should be used so casually. In the long run, such a shift in
mindset would be a far greater victory for individual liberty than any
change in how the state collects data.
1. For a pro-mandatory census argument that seriously considers the
meaning of coercion and whether it is indeed justified in this case, see
W. T. Stanbury, "Government
coercion in perspective: where does the long form of the census fit?"
The Hill Times, July 26, 2010.
Adam Allouba is a business lawyer based in Montreal and a graduate
of the McGill University Faculty of Law. He also holds a B.A.
and an M.A. in political science from McGill.