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My new hobby

As the blurb on the top of the homepage says, I am a scientist by day and a musician by night. In between those two things, I try my best to stay in touch with what’s going on around the world and in my own community. From time to time (actually, on average once a weekday :P) I find something relevant in the news that I think warrants sharing. In my own small way, I like to think I am contributing to a solution by calling attention to problems.

Another thing I have just started to do along those lines is to write letters to my member of parliament. There are a handful of issues I’ve felt strongly enough about to write letters, including a decision to add a former GSK executive to CIHR’s board (those of you in the health research field are gasping and shaking your heads, those of you in other jobs are probably wondering what the hell a GSK is), the parliamentary board of internal economy refusing to allow the auditor general access to details from MPs expense accounts, and today the decision by the Harper government to change the 2011 census in such a way as to make data reporting voluntary rather than mandatory (with thanks to Reka Pataky for bringing the issue to my attention). The letter I wrote to my MP Hedy Fry reads as follows:

Dear Member Fry,

I am writing to inform you of my disapproval and concern regarding the changes to the long-form questionnaire of the 2011 Canadian census. This is a major decision that was carried out with no consultation. It will drastically change the information we have about the Canadian population – information that is vital to decisions on economic, social, health, and policy matters.

The switch to a voluntary survey for 2011 will render the long-form data biased, unreliable, and largely worthless given that only those who choose to respond will respond. Sample data that are collected voluntarily cannot be declared representative of the population from which they were collected, and as such, cannot be used reliably to draw inferences or make decisions about that population. This change to the census will eliminate one of the most important data sources available to researchers, policy makers and the general public.

This of course is to say nothing of the fact that the poorest Canadians, who are already under-represented by the census (and therefore by government services) will be further disenfranchised. I can only interpret this action as a deliberate attempt by the federal government to justify cutting services to those who need them most. As a health researcher, I know that it is crucial that we have accurate and comprehensive information on vulnerable populations, and the census is one of the primary sources of such information. These concerns stand in addition to those posed by the business community, who use this data for marketing campaigns and to plan where to target specific business expansion.

In short, the Canadian census, one of the most important data sources in Canada renowned in the world for its content and representativeness, will be under-minded by the decision to change to a voluntary survey. To perform such a drastic change without broad consultation and consideration of the consequences to the Canadian population is extremely disturbing. I hope that you will represent Canadians in speaking out against this unwarranted change.

Sincerely,

[Signed]

The sections in bold are my own addition to a form letter originating with Perry Hystad, a PhD candidate at UBC. I e-mailed a copy of the letter to Member Fry’s parliament e-mail, and have sent hard copies to her Vancouver constituency office and to her Ottawa parliamentary office. Previous response times to my e-mails and letters has been about 6 weeks.

I encourage all of you to send a copy of this letter to your own MP, as this is an issue that will affect all of us. The census affects funding for programs, political representation, business and housing initiatives… basically any services you want from the government and a number of private-sector issues as well.

So, as a new feature here on the Manifesto, I will periodically post the issues I write letters about, copies of the letters I write, and the responses I get from MPs. If there’s an issue you think I should feature or write about, please write it in the comments section of any post. If you share my enthusiasm for getting the attention of government, please write your own letters (or feel free to copy mine).

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