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Is the census really an evangelical issue?

The census causes marginalized groups to be visible to governments who might otherwise ignore them because they aren’t powerful.

by Guest Blogger, Rick Hiemstra

Is the census really an evangelical issue? It depends on how the census question is framed.  Right now the government is framing it as an issue of privacy.  If you ask me “Are you for privacy?” I’ll say, “Yes, how can you be against privacy? It’s like being against motherhood.”

There is a lot of heated talk about the census asking how many bathrooms you have in your house. It doesn’t; it never did.  Here are links to the census long forms for 2001 and 2006. These questions are very important so we should be on the same page about what is and isn’t being asked. This is a big form.  Some of the questions could easily be construed as intrusive.  So why might anyone advocate for the government to continue to collect this kind information, if not exactly the same information? 

Before dealing with that let’s address the privacy issue head on.  We have two federal privacy laws in Canada, the Privacy Act  that governs how federal government departments and agencies use data, and the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) that governs how the private sector uses data.  Statistics Canada and all other users of census data are bound by this legislation.  Statistics Canada also posts extensive information about how it makes privacy decisions.  There are strong privacy protections around Canadian census data.

Let’s reframe the question as “Who benefits from census data?”  We all do, especially minority groups like Evangelicals. 

Numbers talk, especially when a non-partisan, respected, independent agency like Statistics Canada is doing the talking.  People trust Statscan to produce numbers; people trust the accuracy of their numbers.  So in a society that is increasingly polarized we can still talk with each other using Statscan’s numbers. 

The EFC intervenes in court cases about religious freedom.  One of the things that is expected in our briefs is a statement about how large our constituency is.  Size matters, and whether we’re quoting the census or independent research, each time we go to court our numbers need to be verifiable with the census numbers – the gold standard, as it were – so the court is satisfied that we aren’t claiming an influence for ourselves as Evangelicals that we don’t have.  The courts don’t allow just anybody to intervene. Census numbers help the EFC be present to present biblical principles on issues that Evangelicals care about.  Without that kind of data the EFC’s job of representing Evangelical’s concerns in the courts and on parliament hill will become more difficult.

There are other ways Evangelicals benefit.  Denominations assess the trajectories of their growth. We can analyze trends in marriage and divorce in Canada – yes even among Evangelicals – and, we don’t get our perspective fogged by data floating up from the United States. 

Using census data, we do a better job serving our communities because we can identify community service needs on a census tract by census tract basis.  Census data has become crucial to both planning and planting churches as one way we learn about the people we’d like to share the gospel with, in deeds and words. Here is a link to census tract data your church can use now.

There are other ways we benefit.  Questions about commuting are used to plan municipal and provincial infrastructure improvements (so maybe your commute gets shorter).  Demographic information is used to decide where and when to build schools and hospitals.  Immigration data is used to make sure that ESL and integration services are available to the people who need them. Federal and provincial governments use the data as a basis on which to calculate transfers and program funding.

The list goes on and on. The data itself is neutral. Without it, these decisions will tend to be politicized.  When government spending decisions are made – at the municipal, provincial or federal level – they will almost certainly be more expensive without the reliability of census data because they will be less effectively targeted. 

Why is this an evangelical issue?  We all care about good government.  The census is a tool that facilitates good government.  It facilitates discussion between different groups.  It helps open doors for Evangelicals to participate in the public square.  But these aren’t the most important reasons the census is an evangelical issue.

The evangelical movement is an association of different minority groups.  Some of our families came here as immigrants and our ethnic groups started churches.  Today, new immigrant and ethnic evangelical churches are some of the fastest growing parts of our movement. Then, and now, we represent some of those who have been heavily marginalized in our society. 

Think of marginalization this way.  As a boy, I spent summers on a relative’s turkey farm.  They had 10,000 range birds that were fed from rows of feeders and waters in the centre of the field. The weaker birds were pecked and forced to exist along the fences of the field.  There they lost weight, weakened and were vulnerable to skunks and foxes – not to mention the other turkeys – that might kill them.  Coming into the field you might not see them because their feathers were grey, dirty and ragged instead of the bright white of the breed. A daily chore was to pick up the dead birds on the margins for burial.

Marginalization is what happens to the weak.  It’s not that it’s intentional, planned, or malicious. The strong take care of themselves, protect their place at the feeders and waters, and the weak grow weaker.

As Evangelicals we’ve been there.  Some, in many ways, still are.  Our experiences of marginalization, and Christ’s call to love our neighbours, compels us to be concerned for those now at the margins.  The census causes marginalized groups to be visible to governments who might otherwise ignore them because they aren’t powerful.  It also allows us and others to advocate on their behalf.  Perhaps, you think those groups should take the initiative to stand up for themselves. Remember, sometimes we all find ourselves in situations where we need others to help us bear our burdens.  If you haven’t been there yet, just wait.

Could this information be put to evil use by governments and others? Yes, but Canada isn’t the Sudan or Iran. If we stay engaged through the efforts of groups like the EFC then census data are less likely to be used for improper purposes. A strong presence in the public square, demonstrating that we care about our neighbours and our nation, is the best way to preserve our freedoms. 

The census is an evangelical issue because it touches a whole range of issues that we care about.  This is why the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada is calling on the federal government to retain the long form of the 2011 census.

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