S-18: An Act to Amend the Statistics Act

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Standing Committee on Industry, Natural Resources, Science and Technology

June 15, 2005
Ottawa, Ontario

Opening Statement by Jennifer Stoddart
Privacy Commissioner of Canada

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I appreciate the opportunity to appear before this 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.

Let me begin by stating that we understand the need to resolve the controversy around the release of past census records taken between 1911 and 2001 for which consent was not obtained as well as the challenge of implementing a meaningful and appropriate consent framework that respects privacy rights and protects the integrity of future censuses.

Release of census records after 92 years

The effect of the amendments in Bill S-18 is to enable census information to be placed after 92 years under the care and control of the Library and Archives of Canada. Once that occurs, release of the information by the Librarian and Archivist is governed by the provisions of the Privacy Act.

With respect to past census information, where no consent to release the information has been obtained, section 8(3) of the Privacy Act allows the Librarian and Archivist of Canada to disclose personal information in accordance with the regulations "to any person or body for research or statistical purposes".

Section 6 of the Privacy Regulations allows the Librarian and Archivist to disclose personal information under the control of Library and Archives Canada:

  1. to a person or body;
  2. for research or statistical purposes;
  3. after 92 years.

Releasing census records after 92 years is consistent with theregulations to the Privacy Act which have been in place for over 20 years. I am satisfied that this figure represents a reasonable compromise for dealing with past census records.

Consent Provisions and Sensitivity of Information

Let me now turn to the consent provisions of the Act that will apply for future census beginning in 2006.

I am pleased to see that consent provisions are included in the amendments to the Act and would concur with comments 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.

The Honourable David L. Emerson was quoted as saying in a 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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