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AFHS & AGS joint submission to the Senate on Bill S-13

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  • Lois Sparling
    There are some major concerns with Bill S-13, An Act to amend the Statistics Act , introduced by Senator Milne earlier this month to deal with access to the
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 13, 2003
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      There are some major concerns with Bill S-13, "An Act to amend the
      Statistics Act", introduced by Senator Milne earlier this month to deal
      with access to the original records of historic censuses. There has
      been considerable discussion in the genealogical and family history
      community about this Bill. Many people are quite distressed about new
      limitations on access to the original records of historic censuses
      suggested in this Bill. The census is a key resource for those
      researching their family history. The 1911 census is of particular
      importance because record numbers of immigrants came to Canada during
      the first two decades of the twentieth century.

      The Summary to Bill S-13 states that its purpose is to remove "legal
      ambiguity in relation to census records taken between 1910 and 2003." No
      such legal ambiguity exists for the 1911 and 1916 census. The law in
      relation to those two census is identical to the law governing the 1906
      census. The 1906 census was finally released to the public by the
      National Archives this past January. This was after claims that there
      was a legal problem were examined and rejected by an Expert Panel which
      included The Honourable Mr. Justice Gerard LaForest, who had recently
      retired from the Supreme Court of Canada, and the eminent law
      professor, John McCamus. It also followed the commencement of an action
      in Federal Court to compel access to the 1906 census and a finding by
      the Information Commissioner that access to this census was being
      withheld illegally. After a very extensive, detailed and lengthy
      examination of the relevant law, our Government concluded that the
      public should have access to the 1906 census after all. There is,
      therefore, no legal basis for withholding or placing conditions on
      access to the original records of the 1911 and 1916 censuses after the
      requisite 92 years have passed. Bill S-13 proposes to place conditions
      on access to those censuses. This would be an unnecessary and
      unreasonable restraint on the unconditional access to which the public
      is entitled under the existing law.

      The 1918 Statistics Act included a specific provision on secrecy of the
      census returns. There is no reason to believe that the government of
      the day intended to change the rules on public access to the original
      records of historic censuses. However, those who oppose access to
      those original records point to this as a legal impediment to access.
      The Expert Panel conceded that there MIGHT be a need for new
      legislation to correct this ambiguity so that the public could continue
      to have unrestricted access to the original records of historic censuses
      after 92 years. Bill S-13 proposes to put conditions on access to the
      original records of historic census taken to date for a 20 year period
      on top of the existing 92 year waiting period. This is the "Compromise
      Solution" universally rejected by the family history community over the
      last 20 months or so.

      The first issue is why there is a need for compromise over unconditional
      access to the historic census taken between 1918 and now. To the best
      of our knowledge, there is virtually no opposition amongst the general
      public to the release of these censuses after 92 years, just as there
      had been no objection to the release of censuses after 92 years to
      date. Since we do not know the reason for such a compromise, we leave
      it to this Honourable Committee to weigh the arguments against access to
      92 year old census returns, whatever they are, and to decide how much of
      a compromise is needed to give such arguments due consideration.

      Assuming, for the sake of argument, that a compromise is needed, the
      next issue is access to the census returns after 92 years. We are
      assured that those researching their family history will be able to see
      the actual, uncensored census returns and to search through them freely
      to find their families, relatives, future marriage partners of ancestors
      and neighbours. The ability to "browse" is necessary not only because
      the family historian may have only the most tenuous clues as to where
      their family was living in the census year, but also because locating
      relatives and friends of their family often provides the clues needed to
      lead the researcher back to their family's previous residence or place
      of origin in "the Old Country".

      The Family History community is also anxious about whether the necessity
      of signing an undertaking will impact on their ability to view the
      census. Will it be necessary to travel to Ottawa to sign the
      undertaking? Will the National Archives be authorized to distribute
      microfilm copies of these census to major libraries across the country?
      Will those who are housebound or who reside outside a limited number of
      major Canadian cities be able to view the census online? We are assured
      that the undertaking will not impede access to those who live some
      distance from Ottawa or other major centers.

      We are told that the undertaking envisaged will place limits on what we
      can do with the information which we find in the historic census. The
      regulation containing the undertaking will not be disclosed at this
      time. We are assured that there is nothing to worry about. We will be
      allowed to release the information of interest to family history
      research. Why will we be restricted from publishing how many cows our
      ancestors owned in 1921 for an additional 20 years? There is no
      information in the census returns before about 1971 which is more
      private or sensitive than the so called "tombstone" facts. Why,
      therefore, should there be this extra administrative step before it is
      necessary? It will cost the government effort and money to administer
      this undertaking with no policy reason to justify the expense. It also
      worries the family history community to no purpose. The recent long
      census returns are more intrusive. Perhaps the necessary compromise is
      to require an undertaking to view those long form census returns for an
      extra twenty years after the short form census return are released.

      The censuses are an irreplaceable record of the entire population of
      Canada. There is no question that the long forms of the modern censuses
      are very extensive. There is also no question that allowing anyone to
      opt out of the eventual disclosure of the original census returns harms
      the historic value of the census. This is because some portion of the
      population will be left out. Rather than compromise the completeness of
      the census record for future generations, we would prefer to see a
      delayed, even a long delayed, release of those census returns for which
      permission has not been granted for public access after the usual 92
      years. There must be some period of time that everyone can agree is
      long enough that privacy is not an issue anymore.

      We therefore recommend that Bill S-13 be amended:

      1) so that it does not apply to the 1911 and 1916 census
      2) to require that researchers sign an undertaking only for access to
      the more intrusive, long form census returns
      3) to permit public access to the complete historic censuses taken
      after 2003, including those census returns for which permission has
      not been provided for access after 92 years, following a further period
      of time.

      Respectfully submitted by the Alberta Genealogical Society, the Alberta
      Family Histories Society and the Jewish Genealogical Society (Southern
      Alberta)


      http://www.afhs.ab.ca
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