A lesson for the boys in short pants: the war on data hurts us all in the end

In a few short months Canadians will head to the polls to elect our next government. But before they do, voters need to appreciate that their ballots will have lasting effects for years to come—well beyond a single government’s mandate, and in ways exceeding the imaginations of election platforms.

Following nearly 10 years of Conservative government, we are finally feeling the effects of the Harper government’s attack on evidence-based decision-making, which continues to notably hamstring our ability to combat the most dire policy issues of our time.

The most central of these issues is climate change: an increase in the frequency and severity of flooding, wildfires, and tornadoes are evidence of the volatile weather patterns as a consequence of our changing climate. The most important weapons we have in this battle are data and the scientific research it supports.

The collection and analysis of data is necessary for effective policy development and decision-making. Credible and reliable information in an increasingly anti-intellectual world not only serves up good policy, but access to complete data neutralizes the propensity to rely on ideology as the foundation of “research.” Currently, ideological bias against believing in the existence of climate change is preventing action to reverse its impending effects.

This anti-intellectual stance started with Budget 2011, where the Conservatives introduced what would come to be known as the Deficit Reduction Action Plan (with among the most awful sounding acronyms: DRAP). Among the casualties of these cost-cutting measures was the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, whose mandate was to research how government policies and business would contribute to sustainable development. Environment Canada also fell victim to the Conservatives’ ruthless strategy to reduce government.

From there, the war on data moved to Statistics Canada, whose long-form census was on the chopping block, replacing it with a voluntary alternative, thereby opting not to collect demographic data that would inform major policy decisions, but also missing a crucial time period when Canada’s demographics were changing. If you can’t count the brown people, they don’t exist and you can further marginalize them in the absence of policy. These cuts were so Draconian that the then-chief statistician and head of Statistics Canada, Dr. Munir Sheikh, resigned in protest.

This decade-long assault on Canada’s ability to collect important data and research related to climate change is being felt now. In the Ottawa-Gatineau area, we are under states of emergency as our cities experience the worst flooding in a generation, only after suffering from these same generational floods two years ago. Hundreds of people have registered as flood victims in order to receive support from the Red Cross and provincial governments. Their homes are destroyed, their lives in tatters, and their prospects for financial stability dimmed while various levels of government bean count over liabilities.

While data wouldn’t have prevented the floods from happening (because nature), greater data stores would have allowed policy-makers to develop better policy options to mitigate the impacts of this event and others like it. In missing a decade’s worth of information, we are left vulnerable to the effects of climate change and our understanding of how it impacts a swath of other federal policy areas, including defence, immigration, fisheries, agriculture, and Indigenous peoples.

Without data, we might as well close our eyes, cross our fingers and throw darts at the wall, hoping we hit the bullseye. When we can’t create effective policies, use predictive analytics to track the next environmental crisis or inform those who may be affected, we can’t act or plan to act.

The irony of it all? While cutting programs and services may make sense in the short term, those costs will come back to bite governments in the ass because when push comes to shove, it’s always more cost-effective to invest the money up front in the planning phase than it is to react to a given situation. The boys in short pants should know that.