Long-form census ‘a public good,’ committee hears

NationalPost.com – News – Previous census forms. Canadian statisticians say that removing the long-form census would have a detrimental effect on data collected.
Friday, Aug. 27, 2010.   Shannon Proudfoot, Postmedia News

OTTAWA — Replacing the mandatory long-form census with a voluntary survey will deprive Canada of its ability to make intelligent long-range decisions, a Parliamentary committee examining the census controversy heard Friday.

“Losing the long-form census, from our perspective, is equal to the government turning off Canada’s navigation system,” said Peggy Taillon, president and CEO of the Canadian Council on Social Development.

“Ten years from now, when governments at all levels are wasting taxpayer money delivering services that are less effective and less targeted to local communities, will you be silent and gladly paying for wasted time and resources?”

Friday marked the second full day of testimony on the census issue for Parliament’s standing committee on science, industry and technology.

The government announced changes in June that would replace the mandatory long-form census with a voluntary survey. Since then, more than 300 organizations have publicly denounced the reforms, saying a voluntary survey will produce skewed results and undermine the statistical backbone of programs, businesses and municipalities across the country.

“(The census) is a public good,” Mel Cappe, president of the Institute for Research on Public Policy, told the committee Friday. “I would urge the committee not to play partisan games with an important public document.”

The Conservatives say the changes strike a better balance between the need for information and citizens’ desire for privacy, and they’ve held firm in their decision.

The census is an “extremely unlikely starting place” to battle for citizen privacy, and the plan to replace it with a voluntary survey and data gathered through other means is a privacy “disaster” waiting to happen, according to the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association.

Micheal Vonn, policy director for the oldest civil liberties group in Canada, told the committee her organization has received very few complaints about the census, and most were about the involvement of Lockheed Martin — a U.S. defence company that provides computer systems to Statistics Canada — and not the census itself.

“The census is not even on the list of the serious and urgent privacy issues in Canada today,” she said.

Airport body scanners, centralized health records and the government’s own Financial Transactions and Accounts Analysis Centre (FINTRAC) are much greater privacy concerns, she said.

The government has said that in addition to the new voluntary National Household Survey, it will rely on existing databases to paint a picture of the Canadian population, but Ms. Vonn said that approach is far more worrying than the long-form census.

Citizens’ privacy relies on data in government and private databases existing in silos, she said, but linking them will “create de-facto citizen dossiers that are a privacy Chornobyl waiting to happen.”

Jean-Pierre Beaud, a political science and law professor at University of Quebec in Montreal, told the committee the sort of voluntary survey the government has substituted for the census is the weakest method for gathering information, a “worst-case scenario” statisticians turn to when no better method is available.

“We believe the announced changes would harm the integrity and quality of the Canadian statistical system,” Ian McKinnon, chairman of the 40-member National Statistics Council which advises Statistics Canada, told the committee. “A voluntary survey will not be able to fulfil the needs of our national statistical system.”

On Thursday, the Liberals vowed to introduce a bill as soon as Parliament resumes in September, reinstating the long-form census and removing the threat of jail time for not completing a questionnaire.

The Tories have also said they will abolish the jail threat for non-completion on the short-form questionnaire and the agricultural census, which remain mandatory. No Canadian has ever been jailed for failing to fill out a census form, although a fine of up to $500 remains as a penalty.

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