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Trust and Cooperation

A few months ago, I was “invited” by Statistics Canada to participate in a “Survey of Financial Security.”

I have always voted in elections, completed my income tax returns, and filled in my census forms. I have nothing to hide. I have even worked as a census taker. But, even so, the scope of this survey seemed unusually intrusive, and I felt uncomfortable with it.

When the government representative phoned to set up an interview to complete the survey, I asked some questions. When she clarified that I was being “invited” to participate and I was not legally required to do so, I politely declined the invitation. I explained that since the prime minister had recently been accused of breaking the law (by interfering in the judicial system to stop the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin), I felt uncomfortable providing the information. The woman explained that the survey was being conducted by a government agency rather than by any particular political party and that my personal financial information would be kept confidential.

However, I felt that if the prime minister could intervene in the judicial process to help some criminal friends of his party avoid prosecution, which he was not legally allowed to do, how could I be sure that he and his colleagues would not also access my personal information, which he was also not legally allowed to do?

Furthermore, the actions of leaders have a profound effect in establishing what is and is not permissible and appropriate. That is, rot at the top will soon permeate a whole organization. If the prime minister can apparently break the law with impunity, then those at the lower levels of the bureaucracy may conclude that it is also acceptable for them to break the law.

In particular, how far could I trust the nice lady who wanted to come to my house and spend 45 minutes combing through the fine details of my finances? For sure, she had been vetted and deemed trustworthy by the government. But then I considered that a majority of Members of Parliament had voted to say that it was perfectly alright for the prime minister to intervene in a judicial process and had voted to block all attempts to investigate his actions. How could I trust her if I could not trust them?

So, I declined. I did not change my mind when the government sent me another letter telling me how important my participation was in order to improve “understanding the social and financial issues facing Canadians today” and to help guide government policy in a long list of areas. I declined again when the nice woman phoned to see if I had reconsidered my position. Besides what I felt was an intrusion into my personal finances, I had also begun to wonder whether the information would in fact be used to guide government policy. I suspected that government policy would more likely be shaped, not by solid research, but by the latest ideological fad or vote-attracting gimmick.   

I have since pondered what was behind my decision. I confess I felt some regret and sadness at having refused to participate since I had always fulfilled my civic duties before. Was I just using this opportunity to register a personal protest against something I considered illegal and immoral? Perhaps.

But perhaps also it was a reminder that society and government operate on trust, and when trust is broken, society ceases to function.            

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