Growing up in Whalley, a low-income working class neighbourhood in Surrey, BC, I wasn’t exactly surrounded by policy makers. Policy was made by people with fancy degrees that lived in different, wealthier neighbourhoods, located on the other side of town, or in entirely different cities.
So maybe it wasn’t surprising that I had no clue how policy decisions were actually made.
In the years since then, I moved “out east,” much nearer to where big decisions are often made. I also earned myself several fancy degrees and started lingering at the edges of political circles. Today, I am the Policy Director at Upstream and could in some senses, consider myself as an advisor to policy makers.
Needless to say, I now have a much clearer picture of how policy is made in Canada, and it’s scary.
In 2003, when I was a construction labourer, I can’t exactly remember why, but I assumed that policy makers in Canada based their decisions on the best available evidence. Although it is true they sometimes do, my experiences in the intervening years have led me to realize that they all too often do not.
The ignorance of evidence in Canadian policy making reached its zenith with the cancellation of the long-form census in 2010. Whereas before evidence needed to inform many policy decisions was at risk of being ignored, now the evidence no longer exists.
My good friend Daniel Fuller—who also happens to be a talented data-analyst and visualizer—has put together an interactive map (screenshot below) illustrating which communities in Canada we no longer have usable evidence for. In Dan’s map below, dark green means you are probably ok, but light green and dark grey mean that data for your community is either poor or unavailable.
There’s a lot of light green and grey on that map, isn’t there. Do you or anyone you love live in one of those communities?
Dan’s map doesn’t present a very detailed picture of cities, where analysis, planning, and service delivery actually happen at the neighbourhood level. Information on neighbourhood non-response is just starting to trickle out of Statistics Canada. In Dan's second map of London, Ontario (below), brown and red correspond to the light green and grey in the map above.
Figure 2: Map of London Ontario illustrating different response rates. Source here.
Sadly, these oversights are not just important to government policy makers. They also have important implications for local businesses as well as non-profits, from churches to food banks and shelters. In grey communities, everyone is now operating in the dark.
"Ultimately, in our democratic society, whether policy makers base their choices on evidence depends on us."
Upstream is one of a handful of organizations that have sprouted up in Canada lately, along with groups like Evidence for Democracy that are making the case for greater use of evidence in public decisions, and identifying the danger posed by disappearing information sources.
Lately, some decision makers are recognizing the elimination of the long-form census as a misstep and are working to correct it. Yesterday, Liberal House of Commons Member Ted Hsu’s Private Member’s Bill C-626, an act to reinstate the the long-form census, was debated in the House of Commons.
Ultimately, in our democratic society, whether policy makers base their choices on evidence depends on us. Policy makers can only get away with making non-evidence based decisions if we don’t know the evidence ourselves, or if we don’t choose leaders who will listen to those that do.
There’s a lot of work to do to get there in Canada. Creating the conditions for wiser public decisions requires readily available information, ongoing investigation, and a framework that allows open communication of that information to decision-makers and the public. Restoring the long-form census, and turning the lights back on in the dark regions of disappearing data, would be a great first step.
Chuk Plante is the Policy Director for Upstream. Chuk is working on his PhD at McGill University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @chukpl
Daniel Fuller has a PhD in public health from the University of Montreal with a specialization in health promotion. He is currently a Canadian Institutes of Health Research and Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation post-doctoral fellow working in partnership with Dr. Cory Neudorf in the Department of Community Health & Epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan and Dr. Erin Strumpf in the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health, McGill University.
Want to read more?
Check out Evidence for Democracy's campaign to reinstate the long-form census
Want to see more of Daniel Fuller's work? Check out his website here. Some of his research interests include population health, natural experiments, transportation and health inequalities.