by Hilary Clark Wednesday July 28, 2010

Unless you've been blissfully on vacation for most of July, the long-form census flap will no doubt have crossed your radar. Indeed, this post is late to the game. Already, hundreds of prominent groups, individuals and a number of provinces have publicly challenged the decision to make the census voluntary, and last week the chief at Statistics Canada, Munir Sheikh resigned. Industry Minister Tony Clement, who is responsible for StatsCan, even went before a parliamentary committee this week to face questions from members of parliament.

So far, there's been no sign that the government will budge on its decision and the Globe & Mail's Michael Valpy suggested why earlier this week. Citing the opinion of a former thesis advisor to Prime Minister Harper, Valpy argued that the decision to make the census voluntary actually belongs to the PM himself and that it's born of a long-standing libertarian opposition that sees the mandatory nature of the census as unjustifiably intrusive. It's an interesting explanation, and perhaps settles the matter. Equally interesting, for those that don't have Michael Valpy's rolodex or email-dex, is that a simple search on http://openparliament.ca/ yields the similar, and available to all, insight that it's not just Prime Minister Harper with the longstanding objection. Entering “census” and “privacy” in their search brings up several interesting threads about past census issues, including a Canadian Alliance member's concern in 2001 that seems be precisely the kind of objection that motivated the change in policy. Whatever side of the census controversy you come down on, take a look at this incredible resource, which does a great service by making the entire record from the House of Commons since 1994 available at your fingertips. Exploring issues through a variety of novel sources and viewpoints – many only newly available to all – makes it increasingly possible for ordinary folks to add their own unique contribution the public debate.

So staying with the census issue as an example, have a look at Twitter for the very latest on the subject. Whether you sign up for Twitter or not, you can always view the ebb and flow through the search feature. In this case, search “census” and “cdnpoli” and behold the torrent. There's a new post every few minutes, and during events like the hearings before the Commons committee, journalists, MPs and others live tweeted the whole thing. Topics can fly fast and furious with the very latest updates, twittiscms and opinions or flow at a more subdued pace, but either way it's an incredible window onto what others think in real-time, while allowing you to add your voice to the chorus as you wish.

The census issue hasn't garnered the kind of numbers in the social media world that the No Prorogue group did back in January. Nonetheless, as with most interesting issues today, a Facebook page has cropped up and has almost 7000 likes. There's also an online petition that's so far tallied more than 12,000 signatures. So while it may be the dog days of summer, count yourself in on whatever public issue matters to you: using any of the ever-multiplying tools that abound, nothing is stopping you from getting right into public debate and bringing something new to the conversation.

Civics    Citizenship & Community