Rolling Thunder Census Review

July 12, 2010

The sound of backlash to the government’s decision on cutting the Census long-form questionnaire continues to rumble across the country.

Tuesday’s Globe and Mail published a story on the topic as well as a column by Andre Picard which was drawn primarily from the open letter on this blog.

The next day the sound of outrage came from Mr. Harper’s backyard as Calgary city planners decried the government’s decision in a  story posted by the Globe.

Yesterday Jim Travers at the Star continued the charge launched by their editorial last week, and Haroon Siddiqui’s column in that paper on Sunday will be on this subject.

Today’s  letters to the editor of the Globe and Mail continue the sound and fury of responses to this bad decision, of course in the reasoned tones expected from readers of the Globe.

Nobody but the Minister responsible for Statistics Canada, Tony Clement, and the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Marjorie LeBreton, who took on questions during Question Period in the Senate earlier in the week, seems to know where the concerns over the “coercive” nature of government, the “intrusive” nature of the Census or the “unreliable” nature of answers given to a mandatory questionnaire are coming from.  Yet these are the official reasons given for the Cabinet decision to ax the long-form questionnaire. If there is evidence to back these claims up, they are not sharing it.

Changes to large public exercises, like the Census or the budget, are regularly preceded by public consultations in most democracies.  Yesterday I circulated the report of the consultation Statistics Canada took on changes required for Census 2011 to a group of researchers across the country who are part of a municipally-based data consortium that relies heavily on Census data.

This report is the type of evidence that the Cabinet would have had available to make its decision on what kind of changes are being sought for the Census. [There may be a story on it later today from Canwest report, Shannon Proudfoot.]  The Statistics Canada’s consultations indeed did raise the issues of “respondent burden” and privacy - clearly the government’s biggest concerns - but raised other important considerations when changing the Census:

Preparing for a new census requires a careful evaluation of data needs. The decision to include new questions and modify or eliminate existing census content is not taken in isolation. The input and insight gained from consultation is an important part of the mix. Equally necessary is the consideration of a number of factors, such as support to legislation, program and policy needs, respondent burden, data quality, costs, historical comparability, privacy, operational considerations and alternative data sources.

The summary of their consultation is fascinating.  Most people wanted Census to ask more, not fewer questions.  Not once was privacy raised by the 1,200 in-person conversations and written submissions, including private individuals, even though people were discussing religion, family arrangements, etc.  Nor was the issue of “burden” imposed by filling the Census out raised by any of the submissions.  (That’s not so surprising - it takes about 25 minutes to fill the thing out, and the average Canadian might have that civic duty every 25 years.)  That said, people were clear that they didn’t think Census is the appropriate data-collection tool for everything.  Some areas of inquiry, such as unpaid work, were judged to be more appropriately considered through a different survey.

2006 was the first year we had after-tax income data avilable.  This wa sonly possible because respondents were asked if they would permit StatCan to link their Census answers to their tax files at CRA. (Customs and Revenue Agency).  That was a voluntary check off box.  StatCan officials told me the response rate to that question was 82.4%

Clearly the vast majority of Canadians do not mistrust StatCan, the Census of the government.  But if this government works hard enough at it, all that will change.

Instead of standing by and letting that happen, a remarkable cross-section of Canadian society - bankers and business consultants, city planners, immigration and settlement workers, community service providers, charities and municipalities, academics and public health officials - is discussing how best to come together to reverse this decision.