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EDITORIAL (May 2016): It just makes census

May 13th, 2016 · No Comments

Canadians are rejoicing at the return of the census, after the mandatory long-form census was axed by the former Conservative government. The widespread enthusiasm for participating in the count is serving both as a declaration of the importance of evidence-based decision-making and as a guilty verdict on how wrong-headed the Harper regime was for cancelling it in the first place.

One of the things the Conservatives did for the 2011 census was remove the mandatory requirement to complete the survey. Doing so let Canadians off the hook for any penalties (which included a fine of up to $500 and a possible jail term of up to three months) for not filing.

The 2006 census, which was mandatory, garnered a 94 per cent participation rate, whereas the 2011 voluntary household survey got a response rate of just 69 per cent, which Statistics Canada called a “low resolution” portrait. At the time, then Industry Minister Tony Clement argued the long-form census was intrusive and that it was wrong to put people in jail for not answering private questions. Clement, however, was unable to identify a single case where anyone had in fact been jailed, so it was not clear what problem he thought needed solving. The volunteer approach commissioned by the Conservatives ended up costing $22 million more than the mandatory one. The only dividend the federal government reaped, and it’s a dubious one, was acquiring fewer facts to contend with at the end of the day.

The 2011 cut of the mandatory long-form census, Canada’s most robust and consistent point of data collection on the economy, society, and the environment, left governments and businesses at all levels with far less comprehensive data, a less reliable transparent way to monitor government itself, a diminished capacity for measuring democratic accountability, and fewer factual inputs from which to craft legislation, regulations, and policy decisions that make sense for tax-payers.

Munir Sheikh, then chief statistician, resigned in protest over the decision to kill the long-form census. Wayne Smith, born in Chilliwack, B.C., took his place. Smith has 35 years of experience at Statistics Canada and holds a number of international positions including that of chair of the Conference of European Statisticians.

The now governing Liberals, who came to office in the fall of 2015, made good on a campaign promise and quickly restored the mandatory census, in fact the day after being sworn in. Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains claimed at the time that the Conservatives were basing decision-making more on ideology than on facts.

“We’re focused on sound, evidence-based policies. We want to make sure we’re driving good policies based on good evidence and quality data,” Bains was quoted as saying.

Smith reported that the volunteer census had a very detrimental impact on municipalities and that Statistics Canada chose not to publish data for roughly 25 per cent of municipalities as the data was not of sufficient quality. With the mandatory census back on track, Smith makes the case that “while good data does not always guarantee good decisions, having no data or bad data is like stumbling in the dark in a windowless room and it’s a pretty good probability that you are going to make bad decisions”.

Internationally, Canada is considered a leader for including the environment as the third pillar of the census, which also includes economic and societal demographics, as well as measuring how the three pillars interrelate. It’s perhaps a testament to our leadership in this field that our chief statistician leads the European Union’s conference of his peers.

Our census-taking is even more popular at home; with so many thousands of Canadians trying to enter their personal info on line it recently crashed the Statistics Canada website. It turns out it’s part of our DNA to want to participate in this and, for the Conservatives to have taken it away, was, well, rather un-Canadian.

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