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Dear Minister Bains,

That Wayne Smith, Canada’s Chief Statistician, resigned his post in a very public demonstration in mid-September should serve as a signal that there are data privacy and data integrity concerns of interest to all Canadians. We are aware that the fall ecocnomic update promises more independence for the Chief Statistician, but remain concerned that amendments to the Statistics Act as outlined do not fully address concerns about information security held by the library community.

Mr. Smith’s departure was spurred by the government’s continued support for Shared Services Canada’s overarching control of digital information—personal and private data about individual Canadians. The fact that the Chief Statistician had to resort to this action is concerning but the far greater issue, that departments outside of Statistics Canada have access to that data, could have damaging outcomes for public policy in this country and for millions of Canadians. The library community is particularly concerned about what Smith’s resignation revealed and is committed to supporting his objective of an independent Statistics Canada that protects Canadians’ privacy and the integrity of the data critical in making good policy decisions.

Statistics Canada collects personal information from all Canadians in many ways, most prominently through the mandatory household census. This information is used to help governments at all levels, public and private institutions, make better decisions to improve our lives and advance research objectives. When used constructively, while respecting privacy, the information is an invaluable resource for learning more about who we are and planning for the future. When mishandled, the information can cause damaging effects of equal magnitude.

In 2011, the government transferred data and IT services for Statistics Canada to Shared Services Canada. The change was meant to save money for government as a whole. Statistics Canada, already underfunded and under siege by changes in government policies, was required to divert funds to Shared Services to perform maintenance on the legacy data centre at the heart of the agency’s operations. The Statistics Act requires staff handling sensitive information and contractors working on behalf of the agency to take an oath to protect this sensitive information. Is this sufficient to ensure the privacy of personal data is guaranteed? Since Smith’s resignation, the public has learned that the current government has resisted every effort to reverse Shared Services Canada’s control over Statistics Canada’s IT operations, and its data by extension.

Statistics Canada’s authority depends on trust. That trust stems from the agency’s independence and its ability to do thorough work of the highest quality. The data on which Statistics Canada’s models and reports are built cannot be compromised. The risk of personal information falling into the wrong hands is what will cause the most concern among the public, but an equally troubling result is the creation of doubt regarding the integrity of the data, that could linger in Statistics Canada’s work. If data can be manipulated, it will also be untrustworthy.

The current government campaigned on a promise to correct the situation and obviate the risk. Page 37 of their platform spells it out clearly: “We will make Statistics Canada fully independent.” Still better, the new government’s first order of business when the 42nd Parliament began was to bring back the long-form census, a move for which they rightly deserve credit. For this change to have the desired effect they need to take action now to resolve the issues that Mr. Smith has raised or Canada could lose even more useful data now than under the previous government. Canada’s library community is calling on the government to provide Statistics Canada with the autonomy it needs and that the public deserves.

Sincerely,

Donna Bourne-Tyson
Co-Chair
Canadian Federation of Library Associations
University Librarian, Dalhousie University

Paul Takala
Co-Chair
Canadian Federation of Library Associations
CEO & Chief Librarian, Hamilton Public Library