Hon. Jane Cordy:
Honourable senators, I am pleased to speak to third reading of Bill C-36, An Act to amend the Statistics Act.
I would like to thank members of the Social Affairs Committee for their attention to details within the bill and the excellent questions that were asked of the many witnesses. I would also like to thank Senator Frum, who is the critic for this bill. Neither of us was an expert in this field, and we both had to do a lot of reading and listening, and I have great appreciation for the work that she did.
This bill proposes to strengthen the independence of Statistics Canada and to protect the professional integrity of this very important institution.
Honourable senators, we all agree that trusted and high-quality information is essential. It enables the government to make informed and evidence-based decisions on matters of importance to Canadians.
And it helps Canadians to hold the government to account for its decisions.
Statistics are a public good. They are produced by the government for and on behalf of all Canadians. That’s why the statistics produced by the government must be of the highest quality possible and be responsive to the needs of those who depend on them. That includes all levels of governments, businesses, researchers, non-profit organizations, Canadian citizens and us, as parliamentarians.
Those statistics must also be impartial.
Indeed, there is widespread agreement internationally that statistical agencies must operate with a high level of professional independence on statistical matters from day-to-day government direction and oversight. This bill will align Statistics Canada’s legislation with international norms set out in the UN Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics and the OECD recommendations on good statistical practice.
It was interesting to hear witnesses tell us the high regard in which Statistics Canada is held around the world.
Honourable senators, this bill strikes the right balance between the need to strengthen the operational independence of Statistics Canada and the need to ensure government accountability for the statistics it produces.
The bill clearly assigns to the Chief Statistician the roles and responsibilities related to the agency’s operations and procedures. This includes any decision over statistical matters such as how statistics are collected, compiled, analyzed, shared, disseminated and communicated.
And because statistics are a public good, the bill ensures that there are open and transparent rules and mechanisms in place in cases where government intervention may be needed. This, in my opinion, is critical. There must be mechanisms for the government to issue directives when, in the national interest, it is deemed necessary to do so. This is the essence of a democracy.
That is why I believe this bill strikes the right balance between greater independence on the one hand and transparency and accountability on the other.
The bill also proposes to create the new Canadian statistics advisory council that will work in a transparent manner and publish an annual report on the state of our national statistics system.
The council will complement the comprehensive advisory committee structure already in place at Statistics Canada, which includes nearly 200 members from every province and every territory and a cross-representation of Canadian society.
This will be a strategic and highly focused group who will provide a well-informed view on the state of our system to the Chief Statistician, the minister and, through its annual report, to all Canadians.
In addition to these elements, the bill proposes that the Chief Statistician be appointed on a renewable term of not more than five years.
This ensures that, based on merit, a Chief Statistician can serve up to 10 years. At the same time, it ensures that new ideas can be infused into a system on a periodic basis.
To further reinforce the agency’s independence and professional integrity, the bill proposes to appoint the Chief Statistician on good behaviour rather than at the pleasure of the minister, as it was in the past.
This means he or she can only be removed for cause by the Governor-in-Council.
Combined, these elements of the bill protect the professional integrity of our national statistical agency.
The bill ensures transparency and accountability for decisions that affect the quality of our national statistics.
The bill also proposes additional amendments.
It amends the Statistics Act to remove the penalty of imprisonment for those who do not comply with mandatory requests for information. The fines will remain in place.
It allows the transfer of census records to Library and Archives 92 years after the census.
This will apply to all censuses of populations conducted from 2021 onwards.
For censuses taken in 2006, 2011, 2016 and for the 2011 National Household Survey, the government will honour the rules set at the time and records will only be released where consent has been given.
Honourable senators, concerns were raised at committee regarding the data gap that exists because of the respondents who did not give consent to have their records released 92 years from now. Honourable senators, this is invaluable historical data and it potentially could be lost to future researchers and genealogists.
The concerns raised at committee and that are reflected in an observation attached to the committee’s report on Bill C-36 address the concern that the proposed new section 18.1(2) does not appear to reflect the current practice at Statistics Canada of allowing responders to provide consent after the fact, a practice this committee would like to see continue.
Members of the committee were told during testimony that responders who originally refused consent can at any point in the future change their mind and inform Statistics Canada that they now consent to having this information released 92 years from now. But 18.1(2) appeared to contradict the testimony.
However, honourable senators, there are still mechanisms in place in the current Statistics Act that can be used to allow this data to be released, and this mechanism will still be entrenched in the Statistics Act following the implementation of Bill C-36 in its current form and without amendment.
Section 17(2) in the current act authorizes the Chief Statistician to release information relating to a person if consent by that person has been given in writing. The addition of the new section 18.1(2) included in Bill C-36 does not change that fact. While some may view these sections independently, they should be read harmoniously.
Bill C-36 amends the Statistics Act to remove the requirement to seek consent for the transfer of census data to Library and Archives Canada 92 years after the taking of a census. This is consistent with the government’s commitment to open and accessible data.
As I said earlier, there were concerns by the committee about data that was lost in 2006, 2011 and 2016 because Canadians did not give their consent to have their information released. It would not be released if the box was checked “no” or if no box was checked; if no box was checked, that was taken to be a “no.”
There was also hope expressed that those who did not give their consent retain the option to change their minds and be able to have their information released after 92 years.
The committee attached two observations, as I said earlier, related to the lost data from 2006, 2011 and 2016, when people had to opt in to have their data released. I’d like to read into the record these observations, which show the committee’s concern and what we did to address them in the observations.
The first one related to the data was:
As well, in consideration of the proposed legislative change that removes the consent requirement for the release of census records to Library and Archives Canada after 92 years, the committee calls upon the Chief Statistician of Canada to explore all options to encourage Canadians to consent to the release of information for the 2006, 2011, and 2016 censuses and national householder surveys.
Statistics Canada should, before the upcoming census, highlight to Canadians the historical value of census records for future generations.
The second observation related to that says:
Finally, the committee would like to suggest that proposed new section 18.1(2) does not appear to reflect the current practice at Statistics Canada of allowing responders to provide consent after the fact, a practice this committee would like to see continue.
Honourable senators, I want to reassure my colleagues that the current act already allows for the collection of data from 2006, 2011 and 2016. And, of course, Bill C-36 makes it automatic that the data is released after 92 years.
Section 17(2) of the current act authorizes the Chief Statistician to release information relating to a person if consent by that person is given in writing. We heard from the department official at the committee yesterday that this practice is done; we heard from the minister that this practice is done; and we heard from the Chief Statistician that this is done. The addition of the new section 18.1(2) does not change this fact.
In speaking to department officials, they stated that while we may view these sections independently — that is, section 17(2) of the current act and 18.1(2) of Bill C-36 — as I said earlier, they should be read in harmony.
Honourable colleagues, Canadians can give consent after the fact.
I understand that the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development may be reopening the act for further amendments in 2018 in his effort to continue to improve the quality of publicly available data in Canada. The modernization of the act is indeed in the minister’s mandate letter.
Finally, honourable senators, this bill updates some of the language in the act to reflect technological advances in data-gathering methods.
Honourable senators, high-quality, reliable and impartial information is essential to inform decisions. It’s essential for researchers in developing the next generation of scientific discovery and informing important policy debates. It’s important for business in developing new products or determining the best places to establish themselves. It is important for Canadians who are making decisions about where to live, where to work, where to learn, where to play, and it’s important for modern democratic governance.
It supports governments in making informed decisions about programs and services that matter to Canadians, and it enables Canadians to hold the government to account.
The amendments proposed in Bill C-36 strengthen Statistics Canada’s independence and protect its professional integrity. It also increases transparency and accountability for the decisions that are made about statistics — an important public good.
Honourable senators, I am hopeful that you will see the positive changes this bill will make in support of our nation’s statistical agency and that you will help protect its professional integrity with the passage of this bill.