Six B.C. residents charged with failing to answer census questions

Louise Dickson - Times Colonist

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Bonnie and Danny Sabados at home. Bonnie Sabados says she was prepared to go to jail when she refused to fill out her census form. Now she faces only a $500 fine.
Photo By ADRIAN LAM/TIMES COLONIST

Dan Steffler was prepared to go to jail for refusing to fill out his census form, saying it was too intrusive.

Steffler, a 36-year-old single father, has been charged under the Statistics Canada Act with refusing to fill out and return the 2016 census form.

Every household in Canada receives the short-form census, with basic questions such as how many people live at a residence, their sex, age and marital status. It also asks about what languages are spoken in the home.

The long-form census is sent to 25 per cent of households. It asks questions about topics such as physical disabilities, health conditions, ethnicity, education, employment, commuting and housing.

Last week, Steffler — who was given the short form — appeared briefly in Victoria provincial court to fight the charge. Bonnie Sabados, a 61-year-old nursing-home cleaner, is also charged under the act.

Their cases have been adjourned for several weeks.

The Public Prosecution Service of Canada said charges were laid against 36 people for failure to complete the 2016 census, six of whom live in B.C.

Fifteen cases have been concluded: Three people received fines, while charges were withdrawn in the remaining 12 cases after people completed the form. That leaves 21 cases still before the courts.

Both Steffler and Sabados said several months after the census forms were distributed, census enumerators came to their doors. The two accused the enumerators of bullying and threatening them.

“For the most part, when the forms came to me, I didn’t really understand them,” said Steffler. “When the first agent showed up at my door, I said I needed time to look into the law and what information I was required to provide. She didn’t like that at all. But whether she liked it or not, I told her it was my right to look into this before I started feeding her information.

“She threatened me, saying: ‘If you don’t give me this information right now, you could receive up to three months in jail or a fine for $1,000. Why don’t you just give me the information?’ ”

Steffler said he ended the conversation and shut the door.

Months later, two census enumerators came to his Gordon Head home. Steffler said he told them that he’d looked into the act and knew what was mandatory and what was voluntary information. He told the men how many people lived in the home, but he refused to give names, ages and gender.

“He warned me if I didn’t give him any more information, the next person I would see would be a police officer and I’d be charged federally, spend three months in jail and be fined $1,000.”

Statistics Canada says Canadians are legally required to fill out the census form. Answering all parts is mandatory, an emailed statement said.

The government says census information is used to plan health care, education, employment and transportation, and helps to determine where to build schools, roads, health facilities, and child-care and senior centres.

Steffler was charged in June 2017.

Six months later, the government amended the Statistics Act to remove jail as a penalty for refusing or neglecting to fill out the census form. Steffler could now face a fine of up to $500.

“There is general consensus within Canada that imprisonment for not completing mandatory surveys, including the census, is inappropriate and disproportionate to the offence,” said a statement from Statistics Canada.

Sabados, who rents a house in Gordon Head with her husband, Danny, and several others, said she was given the form to fill out for everyone.

Many of the questions are intrusive, said Sabados. But bad eyesight after a bout with cancer is the main reason for not filling out the form, she said.

Her husband said the form asks questions such as how many bedrooms there are in the house. “They ask too many questions.”

Bonnie Sabados said: “[The enumerator] wanted to come in and help me fill out the form. I said: ‘Who do you think you are? I’m not going to give you my personal information. I don’t know who you are. Go away Dude.’ He was very threatening.”

Sabados said she was prepared to go to jail when she refused to fill out the form. Instead, like Steffler, she faces a $500 fine.

In 2016, 88 per cent of households completed their forms without the assistance of an enumerator, either online or on paper, Statistics Canada said.

Under the Conservative government, the long-form census was replaced with a voluntary National Household Survey in 2011. In 2015, restoring the long-form census was one of the first acts by the new Liberal government.

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