StatsCan hauls another census refusenik in front of a judge

·National Affairs Contributor
Janet Churnin, a 79-year-old retired Toronto social worker, goes to trial Friday for refusing to fill out the 2011 short form census - an act of protest against U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin’s contract to process the data and the cancellation of the mandatory long-form version.

Another elderly census refusenik is facing charges after balking at filling out the 2011 census form over fears the information could wind up in American hands.

Janet Churnin of Toronto has been charged with violating the Statistics Act, one of more than four dozen Canadians that Statistics Canada has referred for prosecution for refusing to fill out the mandatory form in the most recent census, The Canadian Press reports.

The case comes just a few weeks after 89-year-old Torontonian Audrey Tobias was acquitted of the same charge, which is subject to a fine of up to $500 or up to three months in jail.

Both Churnin and Tobias used the fact that StatsCan employs software purchased from an arm of U.S. military contractor Lockheed Martin as a reason for refusing the census.

[ Related: Judge acquits Audrey Tobias, who refused census to protest U.S. military complex ]

Tobias, who had the same lawyer as Churnin, claimed use of the software gave Lockheed Martin access to the census information and that it could wind up in U.S. intelligence databases.

A StatsCan official testified at her trial that it's impossible for the American company, whose software the agency's been using since 2003, to gain access to the data.

Another census rejector facing charges, marijuana activist Bert Easterbrook of Vancouver, also cites the Lockheed Martin connection among his reasons for refusing to fill out the 2011 form.

Easterbrook, who was honoured for his heroics during the 2011 Stanley Cut riot, also claimed something called the North American Union, involving Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, would give the Americans access to census data.

The judge in Tobias' case rejected the peace activist and Second World War veteran's Charter arguments that she had freedom of conscience to refuse the census based on her belief. But he acquitted anyway, ruling her dodgy memory and conflicting testimony left doubts about her intent to break the law.

Like Tobias, Churnin claims she can't stomach the idea of a giant weapons-maker's software being used to process her personal information, lawyer Peter Rosenthal told CP.

"It associates her with the arms manufacturer and she as a supporter of peace finds that repulsive," said Rosenthal.

"Secondly, there's a good chance that Lockheed Martin could use the fact that it designs the software in order to get the data from the census into U.S. intelligence hands."

[ Related: Hero of 2011 Stanley Cup riot faces jail for refusing to fill out census form ]

Rosenthal is tweaking the argument slightly compared with the Tobias case by pointing to the recent revelations by rogue NSA contractor Edward Snowden about widespread U.S. intelligence data-mining as evidence of the sloppy security around personal information.

"What I'm most hopeful about is that the court will recognize that having Lockheed Martin do the software means that Statistics Canada was negligent in maintaining the information that they get," he said.

"We're going to argue that collecting census data and allowing Lockheed Martin such easy access to it, is an unreasonable seizure of information. It's a very novel kind of argument."

It may seem mean-spirited to drag a couple of little old ladies in front of a judge over their paranoid-sounding concerns about the census. The judge in the Tobias case called it a "PR disaster." But the government has little choice.

The Conservative government controversially already dumped the long-form census in favour of a voluntary questionnaire over just a few complaints that Ottawa was demanding too many private details about people's lives. Experts have questioned the reliability of the data from its replacement, the National Household Survey.

If it neglects to prosecute those who refuse to complete the mandatory short-form census StatsCan may risk eroding the 98 per cent completion rate.

Census data is crucial to helping government departments and agencies target programs. The abolition of the long-form census has already led to debates about whether some communities may lose out because of a paucity of reliable data.

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