By eliminating the funding for data collection, the government hopes to muffle criticism.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper seems to believe that if we stop gathering the information, the problem will go away. The federal government announced on Wednesday, Nov. 3 that Sisters in Spirit – an advocacy group for Canada’s missing and murdered Aboriginal women – will no longer receive funding unless they comply with a series of particular measures. Under the new agreement, the organization must promise to quit working on their internationally acclaimed database, stop using government funds for research and policy, and change their name to Evidence and Action.
Ottawa has recently demonstrated a pattern of de-funding organizations and programs that collect valuable data for social justice work in Canada. Sisters in Spirit is only the latest group in what is quickly becoming a laundry list of information-collecting agencies that are losing government support. In 2010 alone, the Conservative government refused to release documents concerning allegations over the torture of Afghan detainees, scrapped the mandatory long-form census, and attempted to eliminate the long-gun registry. Each of these actions involves limiting and denying the public access to information on issues of significant social concern.
A variety of possible motives exist behind Harper’s repeated decisions to limit or eliminate data collection and information availability. For starters, it’s difficult to identify problems and substantiate critiques without information. Facts, statistics, patterns, and trends are all compiled from databases like the one operated by Sisters in Spirit. If agencies stop conducting surveys and gathering information, problems will become difficult to pinpoint – let alone to prove.
Furthermore, restricting independent research and access to statistics removes the background information necessary for analyzing data. With no historical or social context to be drawn upon, an issue becomes susceptible to propaganda. The public must then rely on anecdotal evidence, short-term thinking, and hyperbole.
Harper’s decision to cut funding can easily be interpreted as a punishment. Cutting or restricting funding based on the information gathered by a group suggests that there are serious consequences for criticizing or questioning the government. Social justice organizations, as well as Aboriginal and women’s groups, have already experienced the silencing effect of de-funding data collection.
When groups that compile data are restricted or eliminated, the public loses access to valuable information. The current administration seems to think that they can simply erase the problems revealed in the data collected by organizations like Sisters in Spirit by eliminating the information itself and any criticisms that might result.
It’s easy for the Conservatives to frame the termination of funding for Sisters in Spirit as a minor budgeting decision. When measured in relation to the government’s previous efforts to silence information, however, the funding cuts expose two major issues that the Conservatives would prefer remain unaddressed: the grievances of women and of Aboriginals. Despite Harper’s attempts, though, history shows us that no matter what those in power do, women and Aboriginals refuse to go away.