S-18: An Act to Amend the Statistics Act

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Senate Committee on Social Affairs

February 24, 2005
Ottawa, Ontario

Opening statement by Jennifer Stoddart
Privacy Commissioner of Canada

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Good morning. I appreciate the opportunity to appear before this Senate Committee, to discuss the Office of the Privacy Commissioner's position on Bill S-18: An Act to Amend the Statistics Act.

My remarks today will focus on the two main provisions of the Bill: the release of the records of censuses taken between 1911 and 2001; and the consent provision that will be included in future censuses beginning in 2006.

Release of census records after 92 years

Let me begin by stating that we understand the need to resolve the issue of the release of census records taken between 1911 and 2001.

This issue has been before the courts and before Parliament for some time. Many Canadians have expressed their views on this subject, both to my Office and I am sure to many of you.

I am not here to argue against the release of these records. I can certainly appreciate the value of census records for the purposes of historical and genealogical research.

To be clear, I am not opposed to the release of census records after 92 years. I recognize that on this matter, I differ from my predecessors.

I appreciate the need to resolve the issue before the next census. Canadians have the right to know how their census records will be dealt with in the future. As well, resolving the issue will help protect the integrity of future censuses.

Consent Provisions and Sensitivity of Information

Let me now turn your attention to the consent provisions of the Act.

I am pleased to see that consent provisions are included in the amendments to the Act and would concur with comment made by the Honourable David L. Emerson, Minister of Industry that Canadians should have the right to decide for themselves if they want their personal census records to be made publicly available in the future.

Consent is central to the concept of privacy. By granting or withholding consent, individuals can control how their personal information will be used or disclosed.

The ability to control the future release of census records is very important because we are required by law to respond to census questions that could be perceived to be an unacceptable intrusion.

The census form asks, for example, about the relationship of the members of the household including whether or not they are a same-sex spouse or common-law partner.

The long form, which is given to one in five respondents, asks a large number of questions, some of them involving sensitive information. It requires individuals to indicate, for example, whether or not they have a physical or mental disability that reduces the amount or the kind of activity this person can do.

The long form also asks detailed questions about income, including income from various sources such as paid employment, employment insurance and workers' compensation, welfare payments and other private sources.

How valid is the consent

The Honourable David L. Emerson was recently quoted as saying in his press release accompanying the introduction of the Bill. "I am proud of the active consent provisions of this Bill which satisfy the highest standards of privacy protection."

I would argue however that to meet this standard, Statistics Canada needs to give close consideration to the way in which consent to the release of census information is obtained. Bill S-18 states very clearly that census information will be released only with the consent of "the person to whom the information relates". I wish to emphasize this: consent must be obtained from the person to whom the information relates — which is not necessarily the person filling out the census form.

As you can appreciate, in many households, one individual usually completes the form. As a result, individuals are likely to give consent or withhold consent for others in the household. This does not meet the "highest standard of privacy protection" promised in the Minister's press release.

Statistics Canada will want to ensure that its administration of the census in fact is consistent with the consent provisions in Bill S-18. It will need to ensure that the person to whom the information relates, gives or withholds consent and that everyone, particularly children, should have the right to later withdraw or grant their consent. We concede that this is logistically challenging, but Canadians have a right to nothing less.

We have brought forward these comments to Statistics Canada and have been told that Statistics Canada officials have been working hard to improve and strengthen the language in the census form so that it more fully reflects the views of each household member. We acknowledge the efforts of Statistics Canada officials in this regard, and encourage them to continue. Statistics Canada enjoys a world-wide reputation for its work and will surely be able to meet this challenge.

Thank you. I will be happy to take your questions.

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