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Sandra Finley was found guilty of not filling out the 2006 census in a Saskatoon provincial court on Jan. 14, 2010. - Sandra Finley was found guilty of not filling out the 2006 census in a Saskatoon provincial court on Jan. 14, 2010. | David Stobbe for The Globe and Mail

Activist convicted for refusing to fill out long-form census


EDMONTON— Globe and Mail Update
Published Thursday, Jan. 13, 2011 3:44PM EST
Last updated Friday, Jan. 14, 2011 9:11AM EST

Sandra Finley and Tony Clement are hardly a natural fit as political allies – she’s a 61-year-old Green Party activist from Saskatoon, and he’s a federal Conservative cabinet minister.

But in Mr. Clement’s ongoing fight to convince the Canadian public of the merits of his government’s decision to do away with the mandatory long-form census, a case that has left Ms. Finley facing jail time may prove politically valuable.


Clement stands firm on census

 “I’m in with strange political bedfellows at the moment,” Ms. Finley said, laughing.

The lifelong activist and former leader of the small Saskatchewan Green Party was found guilty in a Saskatoon court Thursday morning of refusing to fill out her long-form census in 2006. She had entered court hoping for an acquittal and help with her legal fees; instead, she’s facing a fine and, potentially, jail time.

“To me, it’s rather ludicrous,” the activist said.

For eight years, Ms. Finley has repeatedly criticized the form as unnecessarily intrusive, and she objects to Canada’s decision to contract out census work to technology giant Lockheed Martin. When her census arrived in 2006, she refused to fill it out. After repeated warnings, she was charged under the Statistics Canada Act in March, 2008.

The principled stand, with its legal fallout, is precisely the type of case invoked by Mr. Clement, the Industry Minister, in justifying his move to make the long-form document optional.

Many within Statistics Canada, which reports to Mr. Clement, fear the move will skew the census, and the agency’s chief statistician, Munir Sheikh, resigned amid the uproar over last summer’s decision to make it optional. Ms. Finley supports the change, even though it will do her no good.

“It’s not any use, because that charging section still applies based on 2006,” said Steven Seiferling, Ms. Finley’s attorney.

Ms. Finley acknowledged she didn’t fill out the form. Rather, she argued that the required long-form document violated her right under Section Eight of the Charter, which restricts “unreasonable search or seizure” of information. In a provincial court ruling, Judge S.P. Whelan dismissed the notion, saying Ms. Finley and her attorney “did not meet the burden of establishing a breach” of the section.

Ms. Finley said she’ll almost certainly appeal. She will be back in court on Jan. 20 for sentencing, where she faces up to three months in prison, a $500 fine or some combination of the two.

She’s not the first to be convicted – among a handful of previous cases, Todd Stelmach, a Kingston resident, was convicted in 2009 of the same offence, and was fined $300. Mr. Seiferling pointed to that case as a possible sentencing precedent for Ms. Finley, though she could face worse, including a criminal record if sent to jail.

Nevertheless, Ms. Finley remains defiant and said Thursday she won’t pay any fine. “I’m in a position where, am I going to pay the fine? And I think the answer to that is, well, no,” she said. “They’re going to have to do something.”

For the 2006 census, Statistics Canada referred 64 cases to the Justice Department after people repeatedly refused to complete the form, but the agency says prosecutions are not its decision. “The decision to lay charges is the sole responsibility of the Public Prosecution Service of Canada,” Statistics Canada said in a statement.

If Ms. Finley continues to appeal and is eventually successful, a court could conceivably strike down the requirement to complete the form and save the Harper government the political hassle of following through on its pledge to do so. Requests for comment from Mr. Clement and the Prime Minister’s Office weren’t returned.

“The focus of the case is whether or not the long-form census, or the collection of personal information by the government for statistical purposes, is a violation of Canadian privacy,” Mr. Seiferling said. “That’s going to continue to be the process as it goes up through the appeals process.”

Although she bears the legal responsibility to prove her Charter rights have been violated, and the judge ruled she failed to do so, Ms. Finley stands firm in her belief that the long-form document is too intrusive. Now, she awaits her sentence and plans a potential appeal after what she took as a surprising verdict Thursday morning.

“I’m equally confident that I won’t be sent to jail,” she said, “but my history of predicting what will happen in the justice system appears to be not very good.”

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