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October 22, 2015

And yet more of Harper's crimes against Canadians

Scott Stockdale

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Few understand the axiom "information is power" any better than Prime Minister Harper, thus it's no surprise that a recent episode of the TV Ontario program The Agenda, entitled "The War on Data" is all about the Harper government's policies over its ten years in power.

Moderator Steve Paikin, - a not-so-subtle defender of Mr. Harper's government when he gets the chance - began the show by stating: “When the Conservative government decided to get rid of the long form census in 2010 alarm bells went off particularly amongst economists, policy analysts; but that was just the beginning: government libraries have been closed, historical records deleted and environmental organizations cut.”

Moreover, according to Maclean's senior writer Anne Kingston – a guest on the show – this systematic destruction of information is leading to a collective Canadian amnesia about the country and its citizens.

Ms. Kingston wrote in the September 18, 2015 issue of Maclean's:

“Stories about government data and historical records being deleted, burned - even tossed in dumpsters -  have become so common in recent years that many Canadians feel inured to them. But such accounts are only the tip of a rapidly melting iceberg. A months' long Maclean's investigation...has found that the government's 'austerity' program...has led to a systematic erosion of government records far deeper than most realize. The result is a crisis in what Canadians know – and are allowed to know – about themselves.”

She said that “the systemic segregation of knowledge in this country”  affects the Canadian government's ability to plan policy, to plan for education funding and for industry to plan.  She noted that in this the “information age” we are becoming a “closed data country” to the detriment of the country itself.

“It has to do with the ability of government to set policy on evidence; it has to do with our ability to gather scientific research, which is necessary for innovation, for environmental monitoring; our ability to look at even our own history, with a clear eye.”

Ms. Kingston proceeded to explain that not only is the Harper government suppressing government information, it is deleting it so that it will never be available to anyone; and the government is actually changing some of the wording of the information that is available, which, of course, alters the meaning of the message.

“The government has centralized our websites into one portal, and in the process about 60 per cent of our information is gone. Where it's gone no one is quite sure; we do not have any records of what's been lost and what's been kept. This means the government can update websites capriciously; we don't know. I've read examples of certain language being changed without any chronology.”

At a time when other governments and businesses are trying to get as much information as possible, Chris Turner, author of The War on Science, told Steve Paikin that “this is a government that has deliberately over its 10 years in power, reduced the amount of information it considers when it make policy. It comes to a point of fundamental dislike and distrust of outside expertise.”

Mr. Turner added that the Harper government is not only suppressing information about how policy is formulated, but it is also attempting to prevent civil servants, senior bureaucrats and even junior MP's from saying things which were inconsistent with the government line.

Michael Den Tandt, national political columnist with the National Post, told the panel that the real danger in this is when you get policy making divorced from verifiable information. He gave the example of “The Safe Streets” legislation, which he said the government called, ”throwing heinous criminals away forever.”

“As we know from Stats Canada data, the violent crime rate in Canada has been dropping for 40 years, so if somebody has that information on and throws up a counter narrative, it makes it harder for the government to pass legislation on gut feeling; and a lot of what the Conservative government has done successfully for the last ten years is draft legislation based on gut feeling.

Even if a new government takes power and restores the long-form census, Mr. Turner said much of the damage will remain. 

“You would still have this gap or hole and statisticians and other people who use this data are going to have to figure out how to cover over it. A lot of the scientific research this government has repressed. It's not that you can't start it up again; it's that you've really compromised the quality of it unnecessarily. There is going to be some lasting effects of having been so reckless with how the government gathers information."

Ms. Kingston  elaborated on Mr. Turner's comments. "We don't  have continuity with new numbers and old numbers, so that's all going to have to be recalibrated, in a sort of Orwellian sense, where we create our history as such ."

Mr. Den Tandt intimated that if this trend of controlling, deleting and modifying information continues, it may escalate in the future, compromising the rights of Canadians as a whole.

"Once we get into governments partnering with companies like Google and Facebook, that have enormous access to private data and are acquiring it now with no public oversight at all, then we're getting into really uncharted territory; and I think that should raise a lot of civil libertarian concerns."

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