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(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.
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. 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.
“We are not collecting a lot of data that used to be routine.” Canada not only lags other governments, but also international business, says Jan Kestle, founder and president of Toronto-based Environics Analytics: “Everyone is moving toward setting up data-governance processes inside companies to collect information and safeguard it,” she says. government-publication digitization efforts, Canada has no such mechanism.
Canada is facing a “national amnesia,” she says, a condition that will block its ability to keep government accountable, remember its past and plan its future. Federal Reserve posted full and revealing transcripts of meetings held by then chairman Ben Bernanke in the weeks and months leading to the 2008 recession—there for anyone with an Internet connection to read. “[It] doesn’t even make public a list of drugs withdrawn for safety reasons,” he says. Kerr works in climate change, ecology and conservation—“data-hungry fields,” he says.A months-long 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.The situation has descended into farce: Library and Archives Canada (LAC), entrusted with preserving historic papers, books, photographs, paintings, film and artifacts, was so eroded by cuts that, a few years ago, author Jane Urquhart was unable to access her own papers, donated to LAC in the 1990s.The result is a crisis in what Canadians know—and are allowed to know—about themselves.
Yet elsewhere in government, claims of “digitization” can be a precursor to brick-and-mortar closures.