The Emendless Summer rerun plotline drags

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by admin on July 28, 2010

By Martti Lahtinen

We’ve asked the question before: Hot enough fer ya? No, not the weather, the census debate. If the hot topic were a movie, it would be called The Emendless Summer, with surfing the media replacing the seemingly eternal riding the waves on a plank.

It’s guaranteed a long run in Canada. Where else could a simple head count held every five years spark a raging controversy that was already eaten into four weeks (and counting) of mosquito season. We invite being bugged.

The controversy arises from a planned change for next year’s census. Traditionally, one fifth of the forms sent out are “long forms” with an expanded list of questions that must be answered, on pain of penalty. Many conservative types consider such forms to be intrusive, so Stephen Harper changed the rules. In the 2011 census, long forms will make up a third of mailings, but filling them out will be optional.

The autocratic decision has been condemned by many, including Statistics Canada head honcho Munir Sheikh, who quit over the issue. His resignation tops the calls for the Conservatives to reverse its position on making a longer census form voluntary.

But what’s at stake here? It’s a need to know. That’s all. What’s intrusive about telling the central governing body who you are, where you came from, what you’ve acquired?

For example, the 1911 census collected information related to each inhabitant of the country, including residence, marital status, age, place of birth, religion, occupation, education, etc.

Later, the 2001 national head count introduced questions concerning parents’ birthplaces and and languages spoken in the workplace. The definition of a couple was also changed to include members of the opposite sex or the same sex living together, but who are not legally married to each other. The 2011 census will introduce variations – or positions — on that theme.

Apart from the usual demographiti, an updated questionnaire might want to focus on lifestyle, given the swelling impact of obesity on our health-care system. A sample question might consider Body Image, with the responder checking off (1) Lean, (2) Average, (2) Obese, and (4) Fries With That.

But if the voluntary census presents an inaccurate picture of the country because people will balk at revealing themselves or deeming the 40-page questionnaire to be a pain in the butt, there are solutions.

Run the census as a rider with the mandatory tax return. Citizens filing the annual April 30 reckoning must do so on pain of penalty. Structure the census along the same lines: Earn a deduction for filing the questionnaire; rap their knuckles for failing to do so.

To ease the perceived tedium in filling out the questionnaire, make the Internet a basic right for all Canadians. The broadband connection will surely loosen people’s thumbs,

adding to a surfeit of Facebookworms and texters sending tweets chock full of miscellany and unsolicited information. The glitter of gizmos such as the BlackBerry might reduce people’s normal thumbing their noses at government intrusion in the form of a survey.

As for the census questions? Dump the perceived dumb ones, such as the number of bathrooms in a household, that lend themselves to ridicule. Government has no business in the bathrooms of the nation.

But if the need to know about the need to go is based on urgency, let’s hope authorities  doesn’t sit too long on the information to which it’s privy. The census, flush with useful information, might translate into policy somewhere down the pipe before the next quinquennial exercise in 2016.