Recent changes to the census have sparked concern among members of the gay community.
Last month, the Harper Conservatives announced they would scrap the mandatory long-form questionnaire portion of the 2011 census.
The 61-question census, which was previously sent to one in five Canadian households, will be replaced by a voluntary “National Household Survey,” which will be sent to one in three households.
“It screws everybody, including the queer community,” says gay NDP MP Bill Siksay. “Jerking around with the census is a colossal mistake and something the Conservatives need to backtrack on immediately.”
Siksay believes the census change is intended to curtail the influence of minority populations who depend on census data.
“Everybody knows the importance of the census,” he says. “We know the importance of data collected. The Conservative agenda is to make people invisible again, social programs invisible again, minority communities invisible again. This attempt to blunt the usefulness of the census has to be stopped.”
On July 25, Queer Ontario released a statement decrying the elimination of the mandatory long-form census as “short-sighted.”
“I think the ramifications of this are very serious,” says Queer Ontario founder Nick Mulé. “Even though we are not fully recognized on the census at this point in time, this has serious ramifications for our communities in the future in terms of continuing our advocacy work on this front, and also any attempts to glean information from the census are being curtailed.”
Mulé feels the census decision may undermine future consultations between Statistics Canada and the queer community.
“I don’t know if [the consultations] would be dead,” he says. “I think the bureaucracy of Statistics Canada will still meet with the queer communities all across the board, but what I think we’re probably anticipating is a far more restricted perspective. This is a major controversy.”
Mulé says queer inclusion on the census is important for government programs and policies that address the needs of queer people.
“It’s very important to have us recognized as active, taxpaying citizens in this country because we have unique needs that need to be recognized, and when that happens they can better shape policy to address what those needs are.”
Peter Frayne, head of media relations for Statistics Canada, confirms there will be no question on sexual orientation on the 2011 census.
“Past qualitative tests on sexual orientation suggest that voluntary surveys are the most appropriate collection method, provided the context and relevance are clear,” he explains. “Consequently, sexual orientation is currently asked in the General Social Survey and the Canadian Community Health Survey.”
Last November, Dr Verlé Harrop, a senior scientist at the National Collaborating Centre for Determinants of Health in Halifax, delivered the keynote address at the fifth annual Gay Men’s Health Summit in Vancouver. In her speech, she stressed the importance of including queer people in the census.
She expressed shock when she discovered questions about sexual orientation are not already included on the census.
“How could it be that in 2009, gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender peoples are statistically invisible?” she asked at the time. “This is a problem because Statistics Canada is the primary population level data source used by politicians, academics, researchers, policymakers and the healthcare system generally.”
The explanation she received from Statistics Canada as to why queers aren’t included elicited gasps from conference attendees.
“When I asked my data analyst why Statistics Canada does not collect gender/orientation data, she said, ‘We’re Canadian; we don’t talk about things like that.’ When I asked my colleague at Statistics Canada why they don’t collect gender data, he said they were concerned that people would be ‘disgusted’ and end up not filling out the census. When I told my kids about this, they were incredulous. One asked, ‘Didn’t they grow up with Madonna?'”
While queer individuals may be invisible in the census, same-sex common law relationships have been recorded since 2001 and married couples since 2006.
“We took issue with Statistics Canada,” says Mulé. “In some ways they made a move to recognize same-sex couples because of insurance, but on the flip side, they did create a hierarchy. It does privilege people who enter into that institution and further marginalizes those of us who choose not to.”
Mulé believes the census should record all queer people, regardless of their relationship status.
“Programs are funded and developed for one type of queer persona: those who decide to get married,” he says. “This is part of the problem of incrementally recognizing some members of our community through legislation but not others, so it has an influential effect on all these folks.”
The Health Initiative for Men (HIM), a Vancouver organization dedicated to the health and well-being of gay men, would benefit from queer inclusion on the census, says HIM executive director Wayne Robert.
“We know more about what kind of soap you use in the shower than who you shower with,” says Robert.
“Private organizations have funding for research,” he explains. “For healthcare and social policy, we rely on information produced by the census and other kinds of public surveys. We are not able to do the polling work ourselves.
“It’s not like we make decisions in the dark,” he notes. “We do research; we are a research and evidence-based organization. But as far as tying that into the national and provincial policy as to where those pieces fit into the larger picture…
“It keeps everyone really unclear [on] our contribution, our needs and our place in Canadian society,” Robert says, “and the less information we have, the less effective our decisions can be. As a country we’re making decisions.”