Canada 2010: The census debate

Written by  //  December 8, 2010  //  David/Terry Jones  //  1 Comment

Liberal census bill passes – despite Harper Conservatives’ voting against it
OTTAWA – Although the Liberal bill to save the mandatory long-form census passed second reading today, the Harper Conservatives unanimously voted against it as they continue to ignore the will of the majority of Canadians who have been fighting against the government’s ideological attack on the census, Liberal MP Dr. Carolyn Bennett said today.
“Every single Conservative member should be ashamed by their actions today,” said Dr. Bennett, whose Private Member’s Bill to enshrine the mandatory long-form census in law passed at its second reading today during a vote in the House of Commons.
26 November
OTTAWA: CENSUS ROW CONTINUES
(RCI) The debate about the decision by Canada’s Conservative Party government to abolish the mandatory long-form census continues. The opposition Liberal Party says 51 federal departments and agencies used it to develop programs and benefits for society’s most vulnerable. The revelation comes from Liberal Member of Parliament Ruby Dhalla. She based her finding on government documents. Mrs. Dhalla says the heavy use of data from the long-form census by the government itself proves its importance.
14 October
Behind the Numbers: Trust us: killing the long-form census was the right thing to do
(CBC) It could be that the long-form census debate has reached the point that we may have to trust the Harper government when it claims that it really is doing the right thing, and that Canadians – a silent majority, perhaps — hate being asked intrusive questions about religion and ethnicity. In an attempt to move the story forward, journalists have been filing access-to-information requests, sleuthing for documents that shed light on the decision. The documents have produced some results.
7 October
Tories among hundreds of census supporters who emailed Harper
(Globe & Mail) Newly obtained emails show the Prime Minister got a digital earful from baffled and angry Canadians opposed to his government’s plan to scrap the mandatory long-form census – including messages sent by several Conservative supporters prepared to switch votes over the move. Maxime Bernier defended census as ‘essential’ in 2006
6 October
Harper’s base ‘isn’t as energized’ on census, poll finds
” … nearly half of Tory voters (49 per cent) would support keeping the long-form census mandatory.” Mr. Mukerji noted that 41 per cent of Tories believe the government should reverse its decision.
28 September
Liberals move to reinstate long-form census
Liberal MP Marc Garneau introduced a motion in the House of Commons Tuesday calling on the federal government to reinstate the mandatory long-form census, despite continuing insistence by the Conservatives that it is intrusive and unnecessary.
27 September
Without StatsCan’s integrity ‘we might as well not exist’: Fellegi
(Hill Times) Mr. Fellegi, … recently sent a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) urging the Prime Minister to amend the Statistics Act to make clear that the chief statistician should be responsible for issues of methodology alone. The letter was also signed by former PCO clerks Mel Cappe and Alex Himelfarb, and former governor of the Bank of Canada and former Finance DM David Dodge. … The second of the UN Fundamental Principles states that “to retain trust in official statistics, the statistical agencies need to decide according to strictly professional considerations, including scientific principles and professional ethics, on the methods and procedures for the collection, processing, storage and presentation of statistical data.”
If the UN Fundamental Principles were to be adopted into Canadian law, said Mr. Fellegi, “it would do a great deal.”
The census is for Parliament to decide
(Globe & Mail editorial) Despite a current court battle, the census’ abolition was born of political calculation; so the political arena, where the consensus against abolition is so great, is where it should be settled.
23 September
Opposition unites in bid to save census
The Liberals submitted details to the House of Commons on Thursday of a private member’s bill that would specifically insert the mandatory long-form census into the Statistics Act.
Both Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe and NDP Leader Jack Layton were unequivocal Thursday in their support of a bill to revive the long-form. “Legislation, although it would take time to put in place, is something that absolutely we would support,” said Mr. Layton.
20 September
Layton’s request for emergency census debate denied
(CTV) The Speaker of the House of Commons has rejected an NDP request for an emergency debate on the cancellation of the mandatory long census. Peter Milliken says the request from NDP Leader Jack Layton doesn’t meet the requirements for such a debate.
16 September
Census changes to complicate bank’s analyses, Carney says
The Bank of Canada has long focused on productivity, labour and households as a means of assessing the country’s economy and steering it toward better footing. But Governor Mark Carney says that the bank may no longer be able to rely on data from Statistics Canada for these analyses because of proposed changes to the census.
Government study reveals significant errors in voluntary census
A study conducted by Statistics Canada weeks before Ottawa revealed its plan to scrap the mandatory long-form census found that significant errors can creep into survey results gathered on a voluntary basis.
30 August
David T. Jones in the Hill Times: It’s Not Necessary to Be a Libertarian to Tire of Government Intrusion
Is information from long-form census vital for the fate of the federation, ‘nice to have,’ or somewhere in the mushy middle? (Subscription only)
26 August
Census changes ‘mindless’: experts
Decision assailed. ‘Will lower the quality and raise the cost of information’
Canada will pay a huge price for the Harper government’s “short-sighted” decision to scrap the mandatory census, leading U.S. statisticians say.
“This decision will lower the quality and raise the cost of information on nearly every issue before Canada’s government,” Stephen Fienberg at Carnegie Mellon University and Kenneth Prewitt at Columbia University say today in the journal Nature.
Canada will pay a huge price for the Harper government’s “short-sighted” decision to scrap the mandatory census, leading U.S. statisticians say.
“This decision will lower the quality and raise the cost of information on nearly every issue before Canada’s government,” Stephen Fienberg at Carnegie Mellon University and Kenneth Prewitt at Columbia University say today in the journal Nature.
9 August
Marc Garneau: The long-form census is your civic duty
Canada is recognized as having one of the top statistics agencies in the world, and I know from my background as an engineer that there are good reasons for asking each question.
Statisticians will carefully review each question to make sure it generates answers pertinent to the information they need — information that guides government policies on everything from veterans programs to language-support services, from housing priorities to public transit planning. I don’t see a bogeyman behind every government form.
5 August
Liberals push for more census debate as Tories miss document deadline
At last week’s mid-summer meeting of the House of Commons committee on industry, science and technology on the controversial changes to the 2011 census, a motion was passed requesting all documents and emails between Statistics Canada, the Privy Council Office and Industry Tony Clement’s office related to the matter. The material was to be delivered to the committee within five days and that deadline passed with zero documents received by the committee clerk.
Paul Wells: Harper’s got us just where he wants us
The Prime Minister likes it when people assume that his grip on power hangs by a thread
(Maclean’s) If you want government action to have any relation to society’s real needs, you need to measure the society’s characteristics accurately every now and then. If you want the evaluation of government action to be a public good, available to us all, you need publicly available data of a high order, so that anyone with a decent grasp of statistics can measure results against goals.
The Harper government is moving in the other direction. It will spend more money to send more of these long-form questionnaires to more people, to produce a survey with a larger sampling error so more billions of dollars can be misallocated, and citizens will have fewer independent benchmarks against which to judge any of this. If that’s a victory for limited government and the rights of the little guy, then I’m Tony Clement.
But it represents at least two other kinds of victory. First, it marks a kind of rhetorical advance: at least there’s a debate going on in this country now about the proper limits of government interference in citizens’ ordinary lives. … Harper’s other win is a reaffirmation of a central principle of his time in government: while he is Prime Minister he can do pretty much what he wants.
29 July
Economists weigh in on census debate
More than 75 per cent of group surveyed do not believe it’s good policy to replace mandatory long-form census with a voluntary household survey
More than three-quarters of economists – from municipal planners to academics and industry advisers – oppose the federal government’s proposed changes to the national census, a survey released exclusively to The Globe and Mail shows.
The Canadian Association for Business Economics poll found that 76 per cent of 252 respondents surveyed last week say they do not believe it is good policy to replace the mandatory long-form census with a voluntary national household survey.
27 July
Business concerned over census changes
Entrepreneurs, economists rely heavily on data from the long-form census, and most can’t afford the alternatives
24 July
How the census went from a quinquennial chore to a national crisis
Where once the census was merely a quinquennial formality, it is now the source of the summer’s pre-eminent political debate, drawing economists, city planners, statisticians, minority groups and religious leaders into a battle that goes to the very purpose and practice of government.
… Statistics Canada, which the minister has said signed off on the decision, has largely declined to defend the new system. And while the mandatory long form’s prominent supporters are multitudinous, Clement’s public supporters have been few. Libertarians have rallied to the government’s defence, but William Robson, president of the conservative-minded C.D. Howe Institute, has lamented their cause. “For those who want governments to do less but do it better, good information is indispensable,” he recently wrote.
Facing such determined and disparate forces, Clement and the Conservatives have turned aggressive. In a memo to reporters last weekend, the Prime Minister’s Office both mocked the census (noting that 21,000 respondents had identified their religion as “Jedi knight” in 2001, the result of a larger prank by Star Wars fans) and attacked the Liberal opposition. “The Ignatieff Liberals promise to force all Canadians to answer personal and intrusive questions about their private lives under threat of jail, fine, or both,” wrote Dimitri Soudas, the Prime Minister’s director of communications.
22 July
Political firestorm rages over Canadian census
(Reuters) – The political firestorm surrounding the Canadian government’s plan to change next year’s census grew more intense on Thursday, fanned by the abrupt resignation of the country’s chief statistician in protest.
The seemingly unlikely national debate over how statistics are collected, has pitted the minority Conservative government against groups ranging from the businesses community, to social services organizations and local governments.
Even the Bank of Canada was drawn into the debate on Thursday, with Governor Mark Carney saying the central bank will monitor what impact the census changes might have on data that it uses from Statistics Canada.
Statistics Canada chief falls on sword over census
In a public rebuke of Ottawa, head of respected agency rejects assertion that voluntary survey can replace mandatory one: ‘It cannot’
John Ibbitson: Long or short, Tories must retreat on the census
The Harper government’s refusal to listen to reason on the long-form census caused the chief statistician to quit Wednesday night – an extraordinary move – and left Statistics Canada in open revolt. Having gotten into this mess, the Conservatives must now retreat, or put the very future of the census itself at risk.
David Eaves: What Munir’s Resignation means to Public Servants
21 July
Stephen Gordon: When it comes to the census, markets fail
(National Post) One of the surprising things about the census fiasco is that of all the publicy-provided services that small-government advocates could target, the census is very near the bottom of the list of priorities. Many of the services provided by governments could and perhaps should be produced by the private sector. But the economics of databases such as the census aren’t the same as the goods that inhabit most economic models, and so the standard market-is-best results of the First and Second Welfare Theorems don’t apply. When it comes to things like the census, markets fail.
Tony Clement clears the air on censusnot really.
Canada’s long-form census debate
Laval Economist Stephen Gordon and Armine Yalnizyan with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives answered reader questions
19 July
Tasha Kheiriddin: Don’t kill the census. Fix it
How the Conservatives managed to ignite a controversy over statistics collection, especially in the dead of July, is beyond me. Maybe they thought the issue would go unnoticed between beer, barbeques and weekends at the cottage. The saga is eerily reminiscent of the Tories’ proposed change to O Canada, which Prime Minister Stephen Harper tried to slide into the Throne Speech a few months back. Thousands of angry phone calls to MPs, and a couple of polls later, the government backed down and the issue disappeared, but not before Senator Nancy Ruth was pilloried for proposing the idea in the first place.
But this time, the Conservatives don’t have a wayward member of the Upper Chamber to take the heat. Industry Minister Tony Clement is bearing the full brunt of the blow-back, especially when the Privacy Commissioner contradicted his justification for axing the census, namely too many privacy complaints.
What the census feud is all about
…  Conservative MP Maxime Bernier thinks these sorts of questions would rankle most people and he wants to recall the Commons industry committee as soon as possible to explore the issue.
18 July
Government to explain decision to scrap long-form census
The Conservative government has agreed to reconvene [the Industry, Science and Technology] parliamentary committee to explain its decision to scrap Canada’s long-form census and replace it with a voluntary survey — a move that’s received widespread public condemnation since it was made public three weeks ago.
Statisticians go wild
When the number-crunchers get angry, government should know it made a mistake
To turn statistical methodology into a political controversy, a government has to really screw up. But to make statisticians shriek and flap their arms like wounded albatrosses, to cause policy wonks to turn purple with rage, to compel retired civil servants to dispense with a lifetime of discretion and denounce the government’s gobsmacking jackassery to reporters … Well, that’s something special.
Now, personally, I adore discussions of statistical methodology. Can’t get enough. And so, I must admit, I was a little tickled when Industry Minister Tony Clement ordered Statistics Canada to change the census without the slightest public consultation.
Conservative and Liberal MPs ready to square off on census debate
Conservative and Liberal MPs are poised to square off as early this week in what promises to be a heated philosophical debate over the census and the kind of questions Ottawa should be asking Canadians every five years.
The Conservatives, keen to push back against a groundswell of criticism at their decision to axe the long form census questionnaire, are going on the offensive, painting the census questions as invasion.
And they’re accusing Liberal MPs, who have spoken out against the change, as wanting to threaten and jail “law-abiding” Canadians who refuse to answer “intrusive” census queries.
“We’re there to represent the population and we don’t want the state to interfere in the private affairs. The Liberals, they want the state thinking about the personal life of Canadians,” Conservative MP Maxime Bernier said in an interview Sunday.
16 July
Save the Census Coalition
So now the numbers are starting to charge in.
Here’s an up to date list of organizations, companies, and newspapers that have spoken out on the decision to end the long form census.
14 July
Liberals demand meeting on long-form census
‘We want to speak to Tony Clement,’ Garneau says of industry minister
At the end of June, the Conservative government quietly announced it would be replacing the long-form census with a voluntary survey. Statisticians, researchers and academics have decried the move, arguing it will result in skewed and unreliable data.
The government has refused to reverse its decision, insisting that because the survey will be sent out to more people than was the long-form census, enough people will fill it out to get worthwhile data.
Privacy commissioner sees few complaints about census form
Despite statements by the Conservative government that they scrapped the long-form census due to widespread privacy concerns from citizens, Canada’s privacy watchdog has received just three complaints about the census in the last decade.
Their office was not consulted on the government’s decision, says Anne-Marie Heyden, spokesperson for Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart, nor did they recommend the government drop the long-form mandatory questionnaire or replace it with a voluntary one.
CBC: No consensus on census (video)

One Comment on "Canada 2010: The census debate"

  1. Subir Guin August 9, 2010 at 9:00 pm · Reply

    The ludicrous move to scrap Statscan’s Long Form is yet another example of Harper’s stubborn ideological imperatives that refute logic or common sense.
    Firstly, no statistician anywhere would replace the mandatory questionnaire with a voluntary one. People unfamiliar with sampling errors/bias may find this difficult to understand; but it’s much like explaining the Bernoulli effect – a fundamental principle in aeronautics – to someone boarding an aircraft, who may not comprehend its importance. Yet without it the plane could never leave the ground!
    Secondly, Statscan has a stellar reputation and keeps whatever data it collects strictly under wraps. So chances of privileged information leaking out to the public is virtually non-existent. Moreover the date obtained from individuals, goes into a collective bin, and is thus rendered anonymous before the entire lot is analysed. Every five years the data assembled provides a profile of Canadian society, as well as socio-economic trends and information used extensively by governments, industries,corporations, charitable organisations, banks,merchants, universities and marketing groups to name a few sectors.

    This information straddles cultural, economic and political lines; consequently all of us stand to benefit from the findings. Obviously the quality of the statistics depends on the care and accuracy each householder puts into the answers on the form.
    For the vast majority, Statscan’s Long Form questions are not invasive: however, I can understand why people harbouring suspicions about the motives of big government, fail to see what purpose there is in collecting information about a citizen’s ethnic origins, eating habits or medical problems. A simple flyer explaining how such data is routinely utilised by city planners, engineers, entrepeneurs or laboratories would likely allay the fears of many.

    As for the penalties of jail or fines – let’s face it: these threats have never been enforced,and few would quarrel if these were replaced with moral suasion. Surely few would question the citizen’s obligation to participate in the census – not unlike serving on a jury: it is part of our civic duty.
    Traffic on our highways provide a good analogy. Most drivers exercise prudence and responsibility, enabling us to complete our trips without incident. However bad drivers can cause a great deal of chaos and sometimes tragedy. Not all of them get caught; but most of us have to encounter them now and again.
    So it is with the census: the more of us who exercise diligence in completing the form the better the quality of the information we can draw on. Statisticians do not expect 100% accuracy. Nonetheless they know how to come up with a remarkably good profile of Canadian society and track the changes over every half-decade.
    Those who object to the Long Form simply fail to see the big picture or perceive the invaluable mine of information Statscan has been providing for business, governments at every level,institutions,agencies and the general public.
    Finally, the excuse offered by the Harper team that the Volunteer Form was necessary due to complaints from libertarian groups is pure hogwash. If a referendum was called for, I doubt the numbers who favour the change would match the membership of Canada’s Flat Earth Society.

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