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Editorial: Dropping long-form census caused predicted damage

It’s a case of “I told you so.” Criticism was fierce and widespread when the federal government cancelled the mandatory long-form census in 2010, replacing it with a voluntary household survey.

It’s a case of “I told you so.” Criticism was fierce and widespread when the federal government cancelled the mandatory long-form census in 2010, replacing it with a voluntary household survey.

Until that change, 20 per cent of Canadian households were tapped to participate in the long-form census, a more in-depth look than the short form everyone else received. It was a proven means of collecting valuable statistical information for a broad array of purposes.

The census was the bedrock of data collection in Canada and was used to correct flaws in other, less complete, types of surveys. When the government announced its intention to abandon the long form, most of the critics focused on how the change would affect the quality of the census data.

“Scrapping the long-form census, and replacing it with a voluntary survey, will have a serious impact on the quality of information collected by Statistics Canada,” a Times Colonist editorial warned in 2010.

“A voluntary survey sent to one-third of Canadian households will not provide the random sample that is essential for accuracy. The sample might be so small that it will be statistically irrelevant.

“Statistics Canada depends on the census for many of the reports that it produces. The information collected in the census can be used in countless ways, and can help governments produce well-reasoned policy. It helps businesses as well, and they help cover the cost of the number-crunching by Statistics Canada.”

Among those objecting to the change was Statistics Canada chief Munir Sheikh, who resigned to protest the government’s decision.

Ralph Goodale, Liberal House leader at the time, said Sheikh’s resignation was a huge blow and the decision to switch the long-form census to a voluntary process would cause irreparable harm to the federal agency.

“StatsCan has a world-class reputation for its methods, for the reliability of its arithmetic and the credibility of the institution,” Goodale said. “It would be a huge tragedy if that Canadian model of excellence is sacrificed on the altar of Conservative [politics].”

Critics warned that changing the census process would produce lower response rates and poorer data on which to base policies and strategies.

Reliable data are needed to chart, among other things, demographic trends that affect decisions on such things as infrastructure, business development and health care.

The damage has been done, researchers say.

The change has “inhibited research into inequality and identifying winners and losers in economic growth, research into understanding the national problem of the have-nots in the economy, and research into how best to provision local-government services,” said Charles Beach, professor emeritus at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

The Harper government’s justification for abandoning the long-form census was “to protect privacy,” yet the information collected was always depersonalized. Jennifer Stoddard, Canada’s privacy commissioner at the time, found Statistics Canada’s protection of privacy to be exemplary.

It’s another example of the Harper government’s aversion to gathering information and making it available. The persecution and muzzling of scientists and civil servants bespeaks an attitude intent on controlling the thoughts of the citizenry. In the Age of Information, we have a government more suited to the Dark Ages.

Ontario MP Ted Hsu has put forward a private member’s bill urging the government to reinstate the long-form census. He cites the prayer recited each day in Parliament: “Grant us wisdom, knowledge and understanding to preserve the blessings of this country for the benefit of all and to make good laws and wise decisions.”

Restoring the census to its original stature would be one of those wise decisions, one way to bring needed knowledge and understanding necessary for the governance of Canada.