The Census? Count me in

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There's a tug-of-war going on amongst progressive activists on the questionof whether to boycott — or give minimum co-operation to — the Census, dueto be completed by May 16. Lockheed Martin Canada (along with IBM) won acontract to provide software and hardware for the Census. Its status as oneof the world's largest arms manufacturers in combination with the U.S. PatriotAct is at the core of the call for non-co-operation.

The principal organizer and promoter of the boycott of the Census comes inthe form of the website CountMeOut whose motto is “Empowering everyCanadian to oppose NAFTA and deep integration through minimum co-operation”with the Census.

The problem with this notion of empowerment and the callfor minimal co-operation is it's just the wrong strategy, targeting thewrong agency. A successful boycott would have no impact whatever on LockheedMartin but would hurt one of the most important government agencies we haveworking for us.

As for who would be happiest with such a successful campaign, think StephenHarper — and every other radical right wing politician in the country who isdedicated to dismantling democratic governance.

StatsCan is a keyinstitution of Canadian democracy because hundreds of researchers in socialmovement organizations, progressive think tanks, unions and NGOs rely on itsinformation to lobby, criticize, expose and otherwise hold to account, thegovernments of the land. For a social activist, whacking StatsCan is likesmacking yourself in the face. Perhaps this is why the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives CCPA has come out infavour of full co-operation with the Census after investigating the issueand getting a detailed briefing from StatsCan on its privacy protectionmeasures. [I should acknowledge here that I am on the board of the CCPA.]

First, let's look at the main arguments of both sides of this issue. WhenStatsCan first announced its contract with Lockheed Martin it was clear thatthis giant U.S.-based corporation could have access to the data collected forthe Census. Immediately, all sorts of activists and NGOs raised the alarm,pointing out that because of the Patriot Act, Lockheed Martin would beobliged to secretly provide a whole slew of U.S. intelligence agencies accessto information about Canadians — or face huge penalties. Oddly, no oneraised the same concern about IBM.

Remarkably, given the usual response of the federal government and itsagencies to such protest, StatsCan changed the contract because of thecomplaints. Lockheed Martin will, as a result, have no access to any of theinformation gathered, have no staff involved in the program as data is beingcollected, and the whole Census process will be in a closed system with noconnections to any other government information systems.

According to CountMeOut, even though Lockheed Martin is now technicallyblocked from access to any Census information “We believe it would beentirely possible for Lockheed Martin to plant a 'Trojan horse' within theCensus software, to secretly allow the CIA to tap into Canadian Censusdata.” How is not made clear. The Census is not a website to be hacked.StatsCan has developed an excellent reputation for guarding the privacy ofthe information gathered in the Census. The people who work there arededicated public employees, committed to their jobs and to Canadians.

The question isn't whether or not Canadians should be concerned that acorporation the CCPA lists as one of the Ten Worst Corporations in the Worldshould be providing software for the Census. The question is what we shouldbe doing strategically to oppose corporatism and the growth of the securitystate in general.

CountMeOut — not satisfied with the changes to the contract — now must rely on conspiracy theories to maintainits position that we should not co-operate with the Census. Are thereconspiracies afoot? I am sure there are — especially arising out of theparanoid and dangerous Bush administration. Yet having said that, ourpolitics must guard against falling into the trap of the politics of fear.Conspiracies are by definition unknowable — and therefore unchallengeable.Concocting them disempowers people. All it would take is a dozen declaredconspiracies to take up all the energy and resources of Canadian activists.

There is no lack of political work to be done. The challenges we face instopping Stephen Harper and his government are so serious and so formidable,I don't think we can waste energy on a campaign that will do literallynothing to expose his sinister agenda. There's enough bad stuff out there — obvious stuff, documented, already happening, about to happen — withoutfeeding people's fear that there are also conspiracies that we have no powerto affect.

CountMeOut says that even if the privacy issue were resolved we shouldstill refuse to co-operate with the Census because of “âe¦deep integration,Canadian sovereignty, Lockheed Martin itself, and job losses [at StatsCan].”But this is hardly an effective strategy regarding any of these issues — andagain simply targets the wrong player.

Statistics Canada — the activist's friend

In the late 1980s and early 1990s every corporate think tank, neo-liberalcolumnist, editorial writer and TV anchor was on side promoting a campaignof deficit hysteria. We were going to hit the debt wall, Canada was going togo bankrupt, we had to tighten our belts. The Business Council on NationalIssues ranted and raved about how Canada had been “spending like drunkensailors” — beyond our means — and that the only solution was radical cuts tosocial spending.

Then in 1990, StatsCan produced a study that put the whole issue in context.The study revealed the composition of the huge accumulated deficit (it washuge — and it was a problem). “..50 per cent of the [accumulated] deficit between1974-75 and 1988-89 may be traced to a drop in revenue relative to GDP; 44 per centto an increase in debt service charges relative to GDP; and six per cent to programspending at a higher relative to GDP, than in 1974-75.” That's right — justsix per cent of our debt was due to increased government spending.

The study handed to social movements, unions and others fighting socialprogram cuts a weapon they could never have created themselves. Iteffectively debunked the carefully-constructed deficit terror campaign. Itallowed activists to argue that because spending was not the cause, cuttingwas not the solution.

Which is why the federal government of Brian Mulroneymoved quickly to suppress the study after a summary of it contents werepublished. Kevin Lynch, a powerful assistant deputy finance minister (andnow Harper's most powerful civil servant, Clerk of the Privy Council) wrotea blistering letter to the head of StatsCan objecting to the study.

The fullstudy was never published and StatsCan was forced to issue a retraction ofthe summary. But it was eventually obtained through Freedom of Informationand circulated broadly. Even though we lost the deficit war, it wasn't forlack of data backing our arguments.

I tell this lengthy story simply to indicate the critical role of StatsCanto progressive politics. Every movement in the country is fighting forpublic support using whatever facts and arguments it can muster. Whether itis information about the environment, energy consumption, poverty, taxbreaks for wealthy, the percentage of health care dollars now going to theprivate sector, the gap between rich and poor, the increasing number ofhours worked by the average Canadian, the gender gap in wages and salaries — StatsCan is there with the raw data that give our arguments credibility andpower. The Census is the core source of much of that data.

For 30 years now right wing politicians, the media and corporate thinktanks have been demonizing government: Government — not corporations — isthe source of all of our problems. Government has its hands in our pockets;government is inefficient and corrupt; individuals are customers, notcitizens, and know how to spend their money better than government does;government red tape slows investment; we need tax “relief” — as if thesource of revenue for the services we need is somehow an affliction.

The campaign has been working well. Voting levels are at historic lows — asare corporate taxes and taxes on the wealthy. Social spending as apercentage of GDP is at 1950s levels — despite the fact that we are twice aswealthy in GDP per capita as we were when medicare came in. The creation of“useful crises” has convinced millions of Canadians that for-profit healthcare might be a good thing.

We need to expose Lockheed Martin for what it is and what it does. We needto hold politicians accountable for their complicity with transnational — and domestic — corporations. We need to fight to abrogate NAFTA and defendour country against deep integration.

Our government has been hijacked — weshould be fighting to take it back. We can't do that by demonizing it.That's why when it comes to the Census you should count yourself in.

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