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The Census Debate: An Opportunity for Public Dialogue…
Friday, July 23rd, 2010

Over the past few weeks, there has been a great debate in Canada on the role of the census, and what form it should take – a short, widely-distributed version or a longer, less widely-distributed version – and whether completion should be mandatory or voluntary.

Those supporting a mix of a shorter, mandatory version combined with a voluntary longer version posit that the existing mandatory long form is an invasion of privacy and that it is coercive to force Canadians to complete it, considering that voting in Canada is not mandatory. In contrast, those supporting the current mandatory long version combined with a voluntary short version argue that it produces a wealth of data required by innumerable levels of government, non-governmental organizations and private business, and that any changes will produce a skewed or even useless national demographic record.

While the sweltering temperatures of early July have subsided, debate on the census remains heated. I see the debate around this issue as an excellent opportunity for dialogue, deliberation and public engagement – for those involved in the decision and its ramifications to come together and decide what the best path forward is. There are a number of tools that I could see being used to consult nationally:

  • A series of face-to-face dialogues held across the country, during which stakeholders would come together to learn about and work through the various options available;
  • An online consultation, using a ChoiceBook, during which participants once again work through the pros and the cons of a number of options.
  • A live online chat with the federal Minister of Industry, providing participants a chance to hear firsthand about and to discuss the options available.

It is through listening to understand, exploring and testing one’s personal assumptions, searching for strengths and value in other positions, and seeking an outcome that creates new common ground that sustainable decisions can be found on this issue and other pressing public policy issues.

- Stephan Telka -