Editorial: Restored long-form census is welcome news

The Conservative government’s ditching of the mandatory long-form census in 2010 plunged the country into statistical darkness. The lights have been turned back on.

One day after taking office, the Liberal government announced, as promised, the restoration of the long form in time for the 2016 census. It might not be the most glittering of the Liberals’ campaign pledges, but it’s a welcome one, and one with far-reaching effects.

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Abandoning the long-form census was one of the Harper government’s more puzzling moves. The census was a proven, respected scientific tool, the bedrock of data collection in Canada. The information it gathered was used by all levels of government to help set public policy and to plan for a wide array of future needs, including such things as infrastructure, education and health care.

The information could guide businesses as they pondered where to build manufacturing facilities, or to gauge customer potential and labour markets. It was a rich source of data for many kinds of researchers seeking a better understanding of Canada.

In attempting to explain why the long-form census would be discontinued, the Conservatives muttered something about privacy and intrusive questions. Yet the information collected was always depersonalized. Jennifer Stoddard, Canada’s privacy commissioner at the time the long form was abandoned, found Statistics Canada’s protection of privacy to be exemplary.

The Harper government said its voluntary National Household Survey would provide just as much useful information as the mandatory census. The move brought swift criticism from hundreds of organizations and thousands of experts, who predicted that the voluntary survey would not yield the comprehensive data needed.

They were right. The mandatory long-form version had a response rate of 93.5 per cent. The voluntary household survey was shorter, more expensive and went to more people, but the response rate was 68.6 per cent in 2011.

The lower response rates were most significant among mid-sized cities, small communities, rural areas, aboriginals, immigrants and recipients of needs-based payments. That left too many statistical empty places; whole segments of Canadian society were left out.

Statistics Canada would not release some of the 2011 information because it was so spotty, and warned that other data released could not considered reliable.

We were left stumbling blindly around in the dark.

The change “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., after the 2011 census.

The Conservatives couldn’t even hide behind the excuse they were saving money. Navdeep Bains, the new federal minister of innovation, science and development, said the voluntary survey cost $22 million more than the long-form census would have cost and delivered poorer results.

The long-form census will return and it will be mandatory, meaning if yours is among the 20 per cent of Canadian households to be so surveyed, you could be subject to a fine or jail if you don’t complete it. But that almost never happens. Statistics Canada goes to great pains to persuade people, rather than using a legal club.

When you fill out the form, you are helping governments make science-based decisions for the near future. In the distant future, your descendants and others will appreciate the picture they can get of how you and other Canadians lived.

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