Liberal MP Ted Hsu has 69 working days to reverse one of Stephen Harper’s most damaging policies. The Kingston backbencher has tabled a private member’s bill calling for the reinstatement of Canada’s full-length mandatory census. His challenge is to get it through Parliament before the Prime Minister pulls the plug for a fall election.
He won’t get a second chance. The 50-year-old physicist has announced that he will not seek re-election this fall.
He can’t control when — or whether — Bill C-626 is scheduled for a final debate and vote.
And he has very little clout in Ottawa as an opposition rookie.
What Hsu does have is the backing of thousands of Canadians — doctors, epidemiologists, scientists, statisticians, librarians, geographers, city planners, economists, sociologists, entrepreneurs, realtors, pollsters, civic activists, defenders of democracy and citizens who want policy based on evidence. And they’re not passive supporters. They’re blitzing Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Science and Technology Minister Ed Holder and Industry Minister James Moore with tweets, emails and letters. They’re forming social media networks. They’re raising their voices wherever and whenever they can.
The man at the centre of it all is surprisingly calm. “This is not a short-term wedge issue,” Hsu says. “Even if my bill dies on the order paper, I will continue to remind people of the importance of the census. I will advocate for it in the election and I will talk about after I’ve left public office.”
He knows the odds are stacked against him. He dare not promise — or even suggest — “An Act to Amend the Statistics Act” will become law. “It’s mathematically possible,” Hsu allows. “But unless the government uses its control of the committee system and the Senate to advance it, it’s unlikely to get royal assent.”
He wasn’t even sure, as this column went to press, whether his bill would be alive by day’s end. A vote is scheduled this evening. MPs will either send it to a parliamentary committee for further study or kill it. Hsu expected both main opposition parties, the Bloc and the Greens to support it. But he needed a dozen-or-so Conservatives to break ranks to push the proposed legislation to the next stage. “I know some want to support it, but there would be a political cost in voting against their own government.”
What keeps him going is his unshakable belief in the power of knowledge and the willingness of so many Canadians to fight for the restoration of an accurate, comprehensive census.
There were widespread protests four and a half years ago when the government axed the census. But there have been other heated protests — over the government’s decision to shut down Parliament to silence allegations Canadian troops were complicit in the torture of Afghan detainees; its rejection of evidence that indigenous women were being killed at a disproportionate rate; and its attempt to disenfranchise voters who came to the polls without acceptable identification. In each case the ardour cooled.
That hasn’t happened with the census. New waves of opposition keep breaking as people realize it is no longer possible to track how the country is changing, monitor the spread of poverty, check which diseases are on the rise or determine whether the middle class is shrinking. Municipalities can no longer gauge their infrastructure needs. Non-profit groups can no longer direct resources to the areas of greatest need. Analysts and policy-makers can no longer spot worrisome trends. Most importantly, voters can no longer hold their elected representatives to account for gaps, oversights or hidden failures.
Hsu foresaw all of this on June 26, 2010, when Tony Clement eliminated the full-length census. But he was a private citizen at the time. The following year he ran for federal office. He won but his name was placed 153rd on the waiting list to table private members’ legislation. His turn finally came last October.
His bill was the Liberals’ second attempt to save the census. In the last Parliament, Toronto MP Carolyn Bennett put forward a private member’s bill similar to Hsu’s. But it died on the order paper when the 2011 federal election was called.
It looks as if Hsu’s bill is headed for the same fate.
But he will pass the baton to someone else. Canadians will keep exerting pressure. Eventually parliamentarians will find the courage to fix what Harper broke.