Democratic progress requires the ready availability of true and complete information. In this way people can objectively evaluate their government’s policy. To act otherwise is to give way to despotic secrecy.
-Pierre E. Trudeau
Freedom of information legislation refers to the regime for accessing public information held by a government. It generally indicates what information is accessible by the public and what is not, such as, personal information or information related to national security in times of war.
Canadians have had a long summer on the re-in-statement of the Long-Form Census. There has been an unprecedented outpouring of support from all corners of the nation. People want to be informed, and they want to do so with good, reliable and accurate data.
Right to Know Week in my mind, is about disclosure and transparency, but it is also about acknowledging and reminding ourselves that having free and open access to the information and data citizens, non profit organizations, the private sector and government need to inform public policy, is critical to a well functioning participatory democracy. It is about guiding the work we do between elections.
While my faith in those who govern has wavered greatly these past months, and we are seeing that our system has a few process issues that makes doing citizenship near impossible. I have nonetheless regained new hope for some parts of the bureaucracy, the operations of government. In particular Statistics Canada and Natural Resources Canada. While they are both at different ends of the open access to public data spectrum, the former being somewhat regressive in its practices, I have renewed my respect for what they produce, the rigour of their data collection methodologies and the processes they have adopted at creating and disseminating solid and reliable data. Further, I know that StatCan is the best example we have of an institution that understands its mandate, that steadfastly protects our private data, and has taken a stand against the production of an inferior product. Munir Sheikh and Ivan Fellegi have made the term Chief Statistician common place, and have demonstrated ethical leadership and good citizenship. Suddenly we have been educated about the Census, survey bias, scale, accuracy and reliability, and what it is that people do with these data. That is impressive. Shame it took this decimated this institution to get the data out of the closet so to speak, and alert us to what it is our institutions do.
It is up to the rest of us to keep working toward ensuring this issue and the work of our two former Chief Statisticians has not gone in vain and that the output of our oldest institutions, survey mapping and census taking, remain solid trustworthy institutions that produce the best quality data possible. These data are our navigation systems. We as citizens should have access to these so that we along with our institutions can guide our society in the public policy terrain and within the complex global context we live in. That is what democracies do, and we as citizens need to exercise our rights and be engaged in the process.