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End of an Era for Planning Information in Canada?

Whenever we weed through the records of our personal past -- diaries, letters, drawings, school assignments from our youth -- we face difficult decisions over what to keep and what to discard. We are forced to come to terms with our documented past, and often recognize the power such records hold to both inspire – and embarrass. For individuals and governments alike, the decision over what to record, what to retain and what to communicate is a potent one, for it can either afford or constrain opportunities for actions in the future, as well as confirm or conflict with the image or myths we choose to tell about ourselves.
Michael Dudley | July 12, 2012, 10am PDT
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Whenever we weed through the records of our personal past -- diaries, letters, drawings, school assignments from our youth -- we face difficult decisions over what to keep and what to discard. We are forced to come to terms with our documented past, and often recognize the power such records hold to both inspire – and embarrass. For individuals and governments alike, the decision over what to record, what to retain and what to communicate is a potent one, for it can either afford or constrain opportunities for actions in the future, as well as confirm or conflict with the image or myths we choose to tell about ourselves.

Which is why so many Canadians across the political spectrum and from a wide range of professions are so concerned about the decisions by the Conservative Harper Government to end the mandatory Census, and now to impose drastic budget cuts to Statistics Canada, Libraries and Archives Canada and to the information-gathering abilities of a host of other federal departments and crown corporations.

The austere federal budget of 2012 will seriously erode the ability of departments to commission the very surveys that were supposed to supplement the voluntary Census, while the decision to close the libraries of Citizenship and Immigration, Agriculture, Environment, Industry, Transport Canada, Public Works and Government Services, the National Capital Commission, the Public Service Commission and the First Nations Statistical Institute (FNSI) will further hamper research and decision-making affecting Canadian communities.

The fate of these collections is uncertain at this point, although early reports suggest these materials – hundreds of thousands of documents -- will simply be thrown out.

Back in 2010 – and along with hundreds of other stakeholders – the Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP), as well as the Council for Canadian Urbanism (CCU), both weighed in on the Census decision. The official CIP submission called the decision "a great mistake", that would have "serious and negative impacts on Canada's communities" while the CCU cited the Census as "the single most important source of information, and the basis of most important decision-making in cities."

Taken together with the loss of Stats Can staff, the shuttering of the FNSI and the closing of the federal and crown corporation libraries, these moves represent a significant threat to the ability of planners and policy makers to understand emerging trends concerning the environmental and social conditions and challenges facing Canadian communities – particularly those with vulnerable populations. As a consequence, the process of public-policy making will be rendered more vulnerable to the influence of ideologically-motivated guesswork rather than being guided by empirical evidence. Critics including the Canadian Civil Liberties Association are pointing to Bill C-10 (the omnibus crime bill) as a case in point, as it mandates more and longer prison sentences when the data show that crime rates are falling, and further that a focus on such overtly punitive policies at the expense of prevention and rehabilitation has elsewhere failed and been abandoned. Yet the Harper government is being widely seen as being simply uninterested in empirical evidence: facing cutbacks to research funding, this past week hundreds of Canadian scientists protested on Parliament Hill to mourn "the death of evidence."

Even if some future federal government re-instates the mandatory Census and restores full funding to Libraries and Archives Canada, Stats Can, the FNSI and the departmental and Crown Corporation libraries, policymakers and historians will henceforth be dealing with a "hole in history" for which there will be no easy remedy or replacement: the data will not be re-creatable nor the lost collections entirely duplicable. This is to say nothing of the loss of expertise represented by the re-assignment or termination of hundreds of librarians.

And what will be on offer in place of these historically trusted information sources? As the progressive economist Armine Yalnizyan observed on Rabble.ca, "If you don't buy official statistics, all you have is polls, market surveys and stories. The Conservatives' anti-information strategy creates space for more mis-information strategies."

What is at stake is our national, institutional and documentary memory. These sources of information are all of fundamental importance to planning in Canada, including transportation, the environment, agriculture, public works, immigration and Aboriginal peoples. Planning processes commensurate with -- and capable of responding to -- local, regional and national challenges depend upon accurate, timely and diverse sources of information, which in turn require the institutional capacity to gather, organize, store and make this information accessible. These budgetary decisions on the part of the Harper government may significantly cripple this ability. 

As an individual, I have the freedom to decide to what to store and what to discard from my own records, to determine what I choose to remember; and, as needed, adjust the range of information sources at my disposal given the evolution of the tools available. As a country, however, such decisions cannot be made so lightly, swiftly and irrevocably without regard for or consultation with the stakeholders involved, particularly when such information touches on almost every aspect of our lives.

Unfortunately, as a result of these decisions, Canadian planners are going to need to contend with a starkly denuded information environment for years if not decades to come.

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