Back To The Data Mine – for Sep. 16, 2010

Those who feel there’s not much for farmers in Manitoba to laugh about these days need only wait until seeding time next year. Don’t take that as a guarantee that the rain will actually start and stop when and where it’s needed, but rather, that you can expect something funny to land in your mailbox about that time.

It’s no secret that when the 2011 census rolls around, the federal government, ostensibly to “respect the privacy wishes of Canadians,” plans to replace its mandatory long-form census that goes to a fraction of Canadian households with a completely voluntary “National Household Survey” (NHS), destined for a somewhat larger fraction of Canadian households.

It would be too easy to dismiss this as the government’s attempt to shore up support from the aluminum-foil hat demographic, when or if another election comes to pass. Surely there’s a plausible reason why the government would want to pare the credibility of its statistical sample of Canadians down to that of some online “reader poll” – a reason beyond the so-called “privacy wishes” Industry Minister Tony Clement seems to have plucked from not much more than thin air. We’re still waiting for one. And that’s funny. But there’s more.

It’s been said in this space that rural Canadians – who “already have problems maintaining their visibility at the policy table,” as our editor put it – are among those who benefit from the hard data a mandatory long form yields. It might not happen next year, maybe not even in 2016, but it’s a safe bet that public policy on rural Canada – a group defined more than any other by its numbers per square kilometre – will suffer if left up to people who decide on a whim to fill out the NHS. Rural child care, rural health care, rural broadband, rural community upkeep? If you care about any of those things, you may want to seriously consider filling out the NHS. If not, someone else will, and their answers will be funny when applied to you. But there’s more.

Clement has also gone so far as to say the status quo is supported by private-sector agencies, institutions and banks that love to mine Statistics Canada’s data for their own purposes, and that his move is meant to “balance their desire for more and more information” with the concerns of “those Canadians” opposed to a mandatory long form. He’s also on the record as saying the state “should not threaten people with prosecution when collecting detailed private and personal data.”

If you’re a farmer, you’ve likely already guessed why this spring is going to be funny.

Right smack in May, when we all hope you’ll be able to put in a crop, you get to fill out the 2011 Census of Agriculture. You won’t get it from your local enumerator, but through the mail. That’s new. And you’ll be asked to give your farm’s Canada Revenue Agency business number. That’s new too. StatsCan might use it in a pilot project next year to study whether it really needs to ask you for the information you already give out every year at tax time, which in turn “could reduce the response burden for farmers.”

Fine, but while the government hopes to beat back what it considers the private sector’s demand for more data from everyone else, it still plans to ask the farmer, er, well, even more questions.

Next spring, expect to be asked, for the first time, about the number of full-and part-time employees at your farm. And an “environmentally relevant” question about the number of acres from which you baled crop residue. And about your involvement, if any, in “in-field winter grazing or feeding” and “nutrient management planning.” And about your access to high-speed Internet, as this “will assist agriculture service providers in the public and private sectors in planning service delivery to farmers.”

(Now, since I’m the guy putting up daily news at Manitobacooperator.ca, I admit I’m waiting here in that sneaky private sector for your answers about high-speed access. So be honest.)

When asked how all this benefits farmers, even though other agencies phone up all the time looking for your data, StatsCan replies that “only the Census of Agriculture gives data at the local level. Its community-level data ensure that the issues affecting farmers, farm communities and agricultural operations are included when making decisions that affect them and their livelihood.”

Of course, StatsCan didn’t ask to be put in the middle of a public flap about the regular census, but its wholly rational defence of the farm census could – and should – well apply to the census in your community, whether you farm or not.

Oh, and when you get the 2011 Census of Agriculture, remember: “Under the Statistics Act, agricultural operators are required to complete a Census of Agriculture form. Refusing to answer the questions on the census form could result in a fine of $500 or a jail term of three months, or both.”

Andthat’sjust plain funny. [email protected]

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DAVE BEDARD

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