Taking the Measure of a Country

Published: July 9th 2010
in News » Local

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As the Children of Israel wandered through the desert, G-d commanded Moses on several occasions to take a headcount of the community, or some specific sub-group within it.  A couple of these census-takings occur in the Book of Bemidbar, AKA, appropriately, Numbers.  At the very opening of Bemdibar, in fact, G-d instructs Moses thusly:  “Si-eu et rosh kol adat b’nei Yisrael.”  This is typically translated as a commandment to “take the sum” of the tribes or conduct a census of the congregation, but the Hebrew actually says, “Lift up the head of the community of the Children of Israel.”  


Scholars have been curious about this, wondering what is especially uplifting about the taking of a headcount.  Their answer is that standing up to be counted in a large group solidifies attachment to, and connection with, the collective society and confers a sense of identity, at once reaffirming the value of each unique individual and the place of every person in the greater whole. 


In the census that G-d orders in Parsha Ki Thissa, G-d tells Moses that every person enumerated must contribute half a shekel as an offering, across the board:  “The rich shall give not more, and the poor shall give not less, than the half shekel” (Exodus 30: 15).  Now, at first blush this might smack of a regressive tax that was insensitive to the differing means of the community members. The consensus commentary, however, is that G-d found the perfect mechanism to indicate that every person was of equal worth in G-d’s eyes.  Uplifting, indeed.


Of course, sometimes from a purely practical point of view it is important to know exactly how big the community actually is, and how it breaks down demographically.


In Canada, the decennial and five-year censuses have proven over the decades to be enormously useful tools toward accomplishing both of these national objectives:  the nurturing of Canadian identity and attachment and the gathering of critical demographic data.  The information gleaned from the census long-form that went to a random 20 per cent of the population was considered so important the return of the form was mandatory.  By contrast, Canadians are not even legally required to vote!


All of this makes the recent announcement by the federal government scrapping the long-form for the 2011 census in favour of a voluntary questionnaire puzzling and counter-productive.  The government provided no substantive data to support their rationale that Canadians regarded the long-form as an intrusive invasion of privacy, nor did they seem to factor in Statistics Canada’s strict adherence to confidentiality.


While no one admittedly likes the government peering unnecessarily into their lives and homes, it would be just as defensible to assert that while some Canadians may have grumbled just a bit while filling out the long-form many readily embraced it as a civic duty. 


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