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Vanishing Canada: Why We’re All Losers in Ottawa’s War on Data

By: Macleans.ca

When told that his small Prairie town had, in profound ways, fallen off the statistical map of Canada, Walter Streelasky, mayor of Melville, Sask., is incredulous. Streelasky had no idea Melville had been rendered a “statistical ghost town” after the mandatory long-form census was cut in 2010, and fewer than 50 per cent of the one third of Melville’s 4,500 residents who got the voluntary National Household Survey that replaced it in 2011 completed the form. Melville still exists—but as a shadow. We know how many people live there, but nothing about them—where they work, their education levels, whether they’re married, single or divorced, how many are immigrants, how many are unemployed, how many live in poverty. Melville’s numbers, then, aren’t factored into Canadian employment numbers or divorce rates or poverty rates. According to Sask Trends Monitor, the high non-response rate in the province resulted in “no socioeconomic statistics about the populations in about one-half of Saskatchewan communities.” Nationally, we’re missing similar data on 20 per cent of StatsCan’s 4,556 “census subdivisions,” making a fifth of Canada’s recognized communities statistical dead zones.

“To be dropped off the face of the Earth is pretty frightening,” says Streelasky, noting that Melville appears very much alive from his office: “We can smell the wildfires burning.” He plans to discuss the situation with his MP: “It’s the obligation of the federal government to make national data collection as complete as possible.”

Towns like Melville are far from the only entities vanishing from official Canadian records. Physicist Raymond Hoff, who published more than 50 reports on air pollution in transport and toxic chemicals in the Great Lakes—including pioneering work on acid rain—at Environment Canada between 1975 and 1999, doesn’t seem to exist, either. “Nothing comes up when I type my name into the search engine on [Environment Canada’s] website,” says Hoff, now a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland. Also gone are internal reports on the oil sands experiments of the 1970s. “That research was paid for by the taxpayer. Now, the people who need to protect Canada’s environment can’t get access.”

Protecting Canadians’ access to data is why Sam-Chin Li, a government information librarian at the University of Toronto, worked late into the night with colleagues in February 2013, frantically trying to archive the federal Aboriginal Canada portal before it disappeared on Feb. 12. The decision to kill the site, which had thousands of links to resources for Aboriginal people, had been announced quietly weeks before; the librarians had only days to train with web-harvesting software.

The need for such efforts has taken on new urgency since 2014, says Li, when some 1,500 websites were centralized into one, with more than 60 per cent of content shed. Now that reporting has switched from print to digital only, government information can be altered or deleted without notice, she says. (One example: In October 2012, the word “environment” disappeared entirely from the section of the Transport Canada website discussing the Navigable Waters Protection Act.)

Stories about government data and historical records being deleted, burned—even tossed into Dumpsters—have become so common in recent years that many Canadians may feel inured to them. But such accounts are only the tip of a rapidly melting iceberg. A months-long Maclean’s investigation, which includes interviews with dozens of academics, scientists, statisticians, economists and librarians, has found that the federal government’s “austerity” program, which resulted in staff cuts and library closures (16 libraries since 2012)—as well as arbitrary changes to policy, when it comes to data—has led to a systematic erosion of government records far deeper than most realize, with the data and data-gathering capability we do have severely compromised as a result.

Statistics Canada no longer provides a clear snapshot of the country, says John Stapleton, a Toronto-based social policy consultant. “Our survey data pixelates—it’s a big blur. And the small data, we don’t know if it’s right.”

How many Canadians live in poverty now, compared to 2011? We don’t know; changes in income-data collection has made it impossible to track. Austerity measures, ironically, have resulted in an inability to keep track of the changes: StatsCan used to provide detailed, comprehensive data on salaries and employment at all levels of government; now we can’t tell where, or how deep, the cuts have been.

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