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In early June, I wrote this post about the loss of the long-form census and what it means for those that produce and analyze census data to better understand demographics and plan for Canadians. We’re now finding just how destructive the decision to stop the long-form mandatory census was.

In my last post, I examined the Sun Media op-ed “Census cry was all elitist paranoia”, and how the author uses the roughest of population migration data to argue the data is unsullied, without offering any examination of the deeper issues the cancellation presented. Instead of examining skew and how the under- or over-representation different people groups makes the data utterly unreliable, he takes clumsy swipes at so-called “elites”, the only people that apparently care about the change.

Unfortunately this is only one example of insulting and uninformed opinion pieces on the issue. Another is this Sun editorial from February of this year, “Senseless census spluttering ceased”. In particular, this observation by the author:

Notice there are no screaming legions today trying to sell the notion that the census is now meaningless.

No, instead of carrying on with their condemnation of the mandatory long-form census’ departure, they are gleaning the important information the census continues to deliver.

As details of the census findings begin to roll out, there appears to be nothing of great significance lost for the marketers and the analysts to digest and, for governments, NGOs and the non-profits to formulate workable strategies for the future.

All that teeth gnashing was all for naught.

The author also argues that statisticians are quietly moving on with their business as usual with data that is as reliable as ever. Everything now being presented by Statistics Canada as they roll out the first set of data since the decision was made to scrap the traditional census completely contradicts such statements. Such editorials are now proving to be premature at best and at worst, purposefully misleading.

This weekend, these news reports came out, stating that the long-form census cancellation is rendering new StatsCan data unreliable and questionable. Halifax’s ChronicleHerald put it this way:

Data users are advised to exercise caution when evaluating trends related to mother tongue and home language that compare 2011 census data to those of previous censuses,” Statistics Canada states bluntly in a box included in its census material.

Those are strong words for a statistical agency, since they raise profound questions about how the data can be used reliably to come to conclusions about language trends. Officials have undertaken a thorough investigation, with a report to be published shortly.

As a student of information technology, I find the language StatsCan chose striking. It may not read as a glaring condemnation of the new methodology, but as the article observed, what has been said is very strong words for a statistics agency. For now, it seems that with some guessing (a word no statician should ever be found using!) and analysis of contextual evidence from past censuses, some approximation of reality can be gleaned. However, this in itself is a completely invalid method of producing data, and we will only be moving further into the wilderness of guesswork and supposition the more information comes out using this new voluntary method. As the Globe and Mail article stated,

…the method of gathering the new data makes it difficult to assess where Canada is going in comparison to where it has been. Experts say these questions will only grow more complicated as results from the voluntary survey start to roll in next year.

At the highest levels, this information will still be fairly reliable. As the Sun editorials observed, we can still see movement across the provinces and understand where growth is and isn’t happening. But this is far from a complete picture, and is far from the most valuable data. Professionals including urban planners, sociologists and community organizations rely on much finer, community-level data to do their jobs effectively, something that will become much more difficult as time goes on. Observations by Ivan Fellegi, the chief statistician of StatsCan until 2008 in this CBC article put it perfectly:

Even if big cities have high response rates, the swings in the data within smaller communities suggest to him that there may well be similar swings within certain groups in urban centres. Good data for the City of Toronto as a whole says little about how the Chinese population is faring, or whether low-income groups in the downtown core have enough daycare facilities.

My hope is that either the current federal government realizes just how damaging the decision to cancel the long-form census was for professionals working to understand the people they serve with the best possible data, or that the next government will reinstate the mandatory long-form census.

If you have an opinion on bringing back the mandatory long form census don’t forget to inform your MP, you can find their contact information here.

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As the Ontario Liberal Party has battled through several political scandals in the past months (including Ornge, the contempt investigation of Energy Minister Bentley, and now the resignation of Premier Dalton McGuinty), I’ve stood by unsure what to think. Opinions of support/condemnation have been flowing quickly along party lines, leaving me unsure what to think and believe. Discomfort led to confusion and questioning, especially about the validity of the contempt accusations and the surprise resignation/prorogation situation. That news broke out last Tuesday, and Thursday night I published this post.

Little did I know that even as I was publishing it, another political story was breaking very close to home.

The London Free Press broke a story Thursday night that Mayor Joe Fontana may have used federal money to pay for a son’s wedding in London in 2005. That isssue is alone more than enough to fill a blog post, with City Council left to wonder if the mayor should step aside while he is being investigated by the RCMP. However, I want to focus on the issue of partisanship, something that plagues even this issue.

The next day, the issue was addressed in the House of Commons by London North-Centre Conservative MP Susan Truppe. Many Londoners decried the fact that, instead of addressing only the issue, she chose to use the opportunity to attack the federal Liberal Party that Mayor Fontana was a member of at the time. This is her statement.

MP Truppe: “Mr. Speaker, I know families in London, and in fact all Canadians, are worried about the very serious allegations that have been made against their former Liberal MP…The Liberals have not been in government since 2005 and if these allegations are true, then they are still stealing.”

We have seen many examples of partisanship in City Hall, including Councillor Branscombe being slammed for being an Ontario PC candidate, and even a dig at Councillor Armstrong for his marriage to London-Fanshawe NDP MPP Theresa Armstrong. I find this deeply troubling, as I had at one time hoped that municipal politics could be the one arena where issues of party affiliation could be avoided.

The question is, with partisanship creeping into City Hall, how do we reverse the flow? And how do we push back, discouraging it at the local level and lowering the rancour at the higher levels.

Because something definitely needs to be done – this political comic covers the where things stand pretty well. Although it’s American, with the logos changed on the cannons it could describe Canadian politics very well.

Thankfully, things here aren’t quite so extreme. At least yet.

Concern is growing that, as American politics become more caustic, the partisanship and animosity here could increase as well. Pundits have pointed to the rise of Canadian attack ads as an example of the political discourse worsening, and argued it is contributing to growing voter apathy as more voters are turned off from the entire process. Green Party leader Elizabeth May makes a strong case for this in her book “Losing Confidence”.

As someone interested both in politics and encouraging others to participate as well, I concluded my last post with a lot more questions than answers. I was left asking myself “How do we strike a balance? How do we promote political honesty, and foster a political environment all citizens are willing to participate in?”

I ask this as someone as partisan as anyone else. I am a member of the federal Liberal Party, and tend to fall most in line ideologically with their values and policies. I’ve been on the London-Fanshawe riding association board, and have considered being involved with the party in different capacities. I’ve talked with others in and out of the party, and was convinced that the partisan arena of politics is to be encouraged to give rise to strong policies and ideas, while overlooking the more distasteful byproducts, diviseness and distrust.

It is from this partisanship that I write this. I write to vow to myself and others that I will look critically at what is said, and attempt to use equal discernment regardless of who has said it. All too often I have been willing to agree with or dismiss a statement only because of the person who said it, or what their party affiliation is. I know that I will try and fail at this, but I want to be better about this, and encourage others to do so as well.

Examining my own practices as well as those of others, I’ve become confused, disillusioned and disinterested over conflicting reports about events from different partisan and non-partisan groups and media. If we’re going to truly work to foster greater citizen engagement, all need to be willing to work harder to give the honest truth of a situation, no matter how good or bad it makes us look. And we must be as willing to call out bad behavior by someone we support as someone we don’t.

No matter how high or low we place people in our estimation, they’re neither angels or demons. They’re human just like us, and although we may disagree with their policies, their attitude or even character, it’s important for all of us to remember.

I had a strong reminder of this last March. Despite the fact that I had been very critical of her handling of the Electro-Motive lockout situation in London’s east end in January, when my Uncle Ross passed away from cancer, MP Susan Truppe sent me a kind message on Facebook with her condolences.

So – where do we go from here? I think that we must each examine ourselves and decide what our conscience dictates. For me, I think I’ll leave party politics at least for now and focus primarily on what is happening at City Hall. All levels of government are important and by becoming involved in party politics in a reasonable way we can hopefully elevate the conversation, but at least for now that isn’t my place.

On Tuesday, Premier Dalton McGuinty stunned everyone by stepping down from his position as Liberal Party leader, and calling for the prorogation of Queen’s Park until a party leadership convention could be held. In an e-mail sent to supporters, he said:

“I feel very good about where we are as a party and a province. But as Liberals, we’re always driving forward. The opposition’s political games are holding Ontario back.”

“We’re also going to consult with the opposition about what they would support to freeze wages. To this end, I’ve asked the Lieutenant Governor to prorogue the legislature to allow those discussions with our labour partners and the opposition to occur in an atmosphere that is free of the heightened rancour of politics in the legislature. And when the legislature returns, we will either have negotiated agreements in hand or a firm sense of what the opposition will support.”

From this, you get the sense that he is taking a much-needed step back, putting the government back in order and ready to tackle the important business of governing our province. And there is no doubt that partisanship at Queen’s Park is at a fever pitch, however, there is a lot of ongoing business that Premier McGuinity needs to answer for, including the ongoing investigation of Ornge and Health Minister Deb Matthews, and the contempt investigation of Energy Minister Chris Bentley. He has now added to these (and past) scandals by proroguing our provincial legislature while his energy minister is under investigation for withholding documents, which could ultimately lead to the government being found in contempt.

What bothers me most about these circumstances is the partisanship behind it. I am a member of the federal Liberal Party, and a supporter of the Ontario Liberals, yet I’ve watched as scandal after scandal has happened in our province. There always seems to be an excuse, mostly that the opposition are out for blood and entirely unreasonable. Not that these complaints are entirely without merit, some sessions of Question Period do look more like a political circus than serious discourse on how to serve us, their constituents. However, the purpose of the opposition parties are to hold the government accountable, especially in a minority situations where less than a majority of the citizens of Ontario have confidence enough to support the Liberal Party.

I’m also greatly concerned to watch excuses being made for actions that are deplorable, as long as they’re being performed by the federal Conservative Party of Canada.

I’m also greatly concerned about the double-standards that seem to be appearing in the way our governments do business. When the provincial Liberals do things that we condemned in the federal Conservatives (e.g. prorogue to avoid trouble, omnibus bills) I am hearing the same excuses from the Liberal supporters that I heard last time from the Conservative supporters. Those excuses didn’t convince me under the blue banner, and I’m still not convinced hearing them coming from the red banner.

This excellent Macleans article by Mark Jarvis covers the prorogation:

Prorogation is not a mechanism designed to afford the current government a political advantage in the exercise of power.

Yet, in recent years we have seen first ministers misuse the power of prorogation to avoid confidence votes, delay reporting by officers of parliament, escape questioning and scrutiny, and side-step accountability for matters of public policy and administration.

This most recent prorogation terminates an ongoing investigation of contempt against one of McGuinty’s ministers and effectively precludes anticipated motions of contempt against an additional minister and McGuinty himself until a new session of the legislature, when McGuinty will no longer be premier.

There is also the contempt situation. With prorogation, “all bills and committees from this short session — such as the committee investigating Energy Minister Chris Bentley for withholding documents on cancelled power plants — die on the vine.” Many are questioning the motives of the premier proroguing this session, when it nullifies the contempt investigation of his energy minister.

And there is the matter of the contempt investigation itself. I have encountered many partisans that are calling the contempt motion an “opposition witch hunt”; yet, when the federal Conservative Party was under investigation for withholding documents on Afghan detainees and prorogued parliament December 30 2009, opposition parties argued the Harper Government was attempting to shut down democracy in Canada. In response, protests were organized across Canada (Sarah and I participated in the one here in London). The arguments I encountered is that the two situations are entirely different. However, I had this conversation with CBC’s Kady O’Malley (an excellent authority on parliamentary procedure) October 2 over Twitter:

Kady: It’s fun to watch Liberals who decried the Conservatives’ refusal to turn over Afghan detainee docs defend the ON Liberals’ contempt.

Me: I’ve been trying to untangle this issue, many have told me this issue is *completely different* than CPC doing it. I had my doubts.

Kady: Yeah, that’s crap.

Me: That was my suspicion, thanks Kady.

Kady: The power of parliament to order the production of papers, people and records is sublimely simple, and absolute.

Me: Makes sense. What I encountered was: documents were produced on time, document request interferred with business in progress etc. etc.

Kady: No, if the documents were produced in time, there wouldn’t have been a prima facie contempt ruling.

Kady: Also, documents are expected to be produced in original, non-redacted format.

Me: Good to know, to me it seemed exactly the same as CPC situation. So what is really different? Just partisanship?

Kady: Yup.

Finally, there is also the practice of passing omnibus budget bills. On this issue I was also reassured that when the Ontario Liberals did it, phrases like “an unfortunate but necessary tactic for a dysfunctional minority situation” were used. They didn’t want to do it, but it was the only way business was going to pass with such a ridiculous opposition.

Meanwhile, with the marathon passage of the last federal omnibus budget bill, the progressive consensus seemed to be something along these lines:

A second federal budget bill is being tabled today, with opposition parties already scrumming to discuss how these kinds of budget bills, crammed with government business that has no business being there, have no place in democratic discourse.

So what do we do with this? How do we move forward?

I understand the importance of parties in the political process. I understand that it is through parties that policy is built, and ultimately influenced in parliament. It is by joining a party that citizens can make their voice heard; sharing ideas, shaping policy and helping to choose candidates and the party leader. Ontario Liberals currently have the unique opportunity to help choose both the next provincial and federal leader of the party.

Yet, we’re frustrated with the partisanship of the party system. Facts become muddied when party loyalty trumps the truth. What should be strategy to best represent constituents becomes a race to forward ideology, with the worthiness of an idea often measured by merely who said it. Voter apathy is high at all levels of government, with only about 60% of Canadians able to vote actually casting a ballot.

How do we strike a balance? How do we promote political honesty, and foster a political environment all citizens are willing to participate in?

Last week four London civic activists released a media statement about a project they’ve been working on, a survey for all members of London City Council to gauge how they engage with citizens, called CELO (Citizen Engagement in London Ontario). By the time the survey closed, 14 of the 15 members of Council (including the mayor) completed the article. You can check out the webpage for CELO here.

This week, I wrote this Metro article on CELO. I submitted it Wednesday, only to read that same night that Ward 10 Councillor Van Meerbergen had not only refused to complete the survey, but had fired back against the survey and those that published it, his response in full can be read in this article.

Despite the fact that the goal of the survey was to be non-partisan and non-judgemental, Councillor Van Meerbergen’s entire  response is combative. Despite the fact that all of his colleagues had no apparent problem completing the survey, he tells the group that published CELO that he isn’t accountable to them but only to his constituents, and that they have no right to make such demands. He continues to say that he prefers face-to-face interactions and works hard to meet a wide variety of constituent concerns, which is very demanding. It was his concluding paragraph that captured the most attention:

“Moreover, your original premise for this initiative is false. It is not the case that electorate is guided or motivated by the levels of communications pumped out by councillors on City Hall expense accounts. Citizens involve themselves in politics and policy-making when they have material interests at stake, primarily threats to the peaceable use of their property, the proper provision of basic city services or the threat of rising property taxation. Threats to these material interests motivate action. A lesson you and your colleagues ought to remember.”

I readily admit that this kind of interaction is how many citizens connect with City Hall, which is absolutely fine. I find it highly presumptuous to assume that this is how all interactions should take place. Even if this is his own personal experience, I imagine that if he spoke to other members of Council they would paint a much different picture of their connections with constituents.

For example, I’m willing to guess that young people are much more likely to connect with their ward councillor if they can approach them in a medium comfortable and familiar to them, such as Facebook and Twitter. Personally, I like to be able to ask councillors questions through Twitter, and have found that those interactions have opened the door to face-to-face meetings.

As well, I think that to take this approach to meeting with citizens is far from perfect. It creates a situation that is entirely reactionary instead of preventative. Why not encourage a relationship between Council and citizens that isn’t just complaint-based? Why not start an ongoing conversation about what can change, but also the positives happening? I’ve met with several members of Council to get to know them on a professional and personal level, to share thoughts about the city as well as life in general. It sets a much better relationship, and makes it easier to come forward when there is an issue to address.

As I’ve become more involved in the city I’ve encountered a great deal of criticism, predominantly in comments on London media articles and blogs (I’ve seen the light and no longer read any comments on the London Free Press). The criticism can be generally boiled down to these questions:

“Who are these people?”

“Who do they think they are?”

“Don’t these people have lives?”

We all have lives, but we choose to use our time to be involved in our community, learning and growing with it. I own a computer drafting business, doing highly demanding work for hydro utilities and hydro standard organizations across the province. There are nights that I would rather be doing anything other than reading through a subdivision plan, picking apart the city’s Official Plan or going over a financial report. But I do it, because it’s important to further understand how our city works and participate in studying the decisions that shape our lives.

We all have a voice. I aim to use mine to ask questions to the smartest and most knowledgable people I can find, and share what I’ve learned with others. We all have a part to play, and I hope that everyone will speak up with me. This is much more powerful and meaningful than the choice to use a voice to attempt to ridicule and silence others.

I’ve been fortunate enough to meet so many amazing, gifted people as I get more involved with London politics and community. The four that put together the survey, Eamon O’Flynn (@EamonOFlynn), Susan Toth (@TothSusan), Shawn Adamsson (@late2game) and Anne-Marie Sánchez (@anma_sa) all immediately come to mind. But there are so many others, Glen Pearson (@GlenPearson), Abe Oudshoorn (@AbeOudshoorn), Jodi Simpson (@jodisimpson), Chris Moss (@christine_moss)…the list goes on. All of them are hard-working thinkers and activists in our community, working in their own way to make it better.

But we’re only a few in a city approaching 400,000. I want to see as many people as possible get involved.

You can contact your councillor just to say hi and introduce yourself, give them a chance to find out what matters to you. Be curious. Go to city hall and watch your tax dollars at work. Are you happy with what you see? Does the councillor you voted for behave the way you hoped they would? Find out what’s going on in your ward and get active on your home turf. Find out how you can help your neighbourhood, your councillor should know how. If you’re not satisfied, remember that next election, and spread the word to other voters who live around you.

Keep informed, know which councillors are taking big donations from interest groups, or have undeclared conflicts of interest, and watch to see if that changes their decisions. In the end, you should know whether or not your councillor is actually representing you. If they are, contact them and tell them so. If not, contact them and tell them so. When people take an interest, Council is held accountable for their actions, for your money, and for your neighbourhood.