Separating fact from myth in the census saga

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial Opinion
Published August 6, 2010.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

The detailed census questionnaire, the bedrock of national fact-gathering for 60 years, now appears doomed.

Barring a last-minute reprieve, the axe will fall on Canada’s richest source of demographic information within days.

It is tempting to accuse Prime Minister Stephen Harper of single-handedly undermining Statistics Canada, the nation’s census taker. But he is not the only culprit.

Over the past 25 years, the federal agency has suffered a succession of blows, some of them delivered by Harper’s loudest critics. A few had a direct role in the weakening of Statistics Canada. Most watched impassively as its budget was slashed, many of its surveys were cancelled and much of its data became prohibitively expensive.

This is not a defence of the Prime Minister. He has gone farther than any of his predecessors, striking at the professional integrity that has won the agency plaudits around the world.

But the assault on Statistics Canada began long before this summer. The first blow came in the mid-1980s. The government of Brian Mulroney ordered StatsCan to do its work on a cost-recovery basis. That meant it had to charge user fees — some prohibitively high — for information that had always been a public good. Universities, colleges and other levels of government complained bitterly.

In 1986, the Tories tried to cancel the census entirely. They backed off in the face of complaints from the business community.

The Liberals picked up where they left off. Determined to eliminate the federal deficit, Jean Chrétien’s government chopped StatsCan’s budget year after year.

The agency stopped publishing interprovincial trade figures; cancelled its quarterly survey of business start-ups and shutdowns; reduced the sample size for its monthly labour force survey (which contains the official rate of unemployment) and increased the purchase price of many surveys.

Harper kept up the pressure. More research fell by the wayside. The Workplace and Employee Survey (the best source of information about pension coverage) was discontinued. The Survey of Financial Security (used to monitor the concentration of wealth and the prevalence of inequality) was dropped. And now the Survey of Household Spending is being trimmed to cut costs.

If Statistics Canada resisted these moves, it wasn’t apparent.

Martin Wilk, chief statistician in the Mulroney era, cheerfully defended the government’s cost-recovery dictum. “We live in a market economy,” he said. “In any case, information of general interest is available to the public free of charge.”

His successor, Ivan Fellegi, who led StatsCan from 1985 to 2008, made do with less — much less. The agency’s workforce shrank, dozens of its surveys were dropped and it jacked up user charges repeatedly. He defended these money-saving measures.

Only Munir Sheikh, head of the agency until 15 days ago, took a public stand. He resigned.

It is true that Harper has crossed the line between cost-cutting and ordering the agency to compromise its standards.

It is true his government’s June 26 edict makes neither practical nor financial sense. Replacing the detailed census questionnaire with a voluntary survey that will cost taxpayers an additional $30 million and produce results many decision-makers — some in his own government — consider too unreliable to use, defies reason.

And it’s true his ministers have been pigheaded, dismissing the damage this policy will do and rejecting constructive proposals for reform.

If Harper proceeds, Canada’s 2011 census — except its basic head count — will be little more than an unscientific poll.

But he didn’t carve the path he’s on. That was done by four prime ministers, two chief statisticians, a bevy of bureaucrats and a public that didn’t stir until it was too late.

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