Let top statistician resolve census issue, former civil servants urge PM

Posted on September 12, 2010 in Governance Debates

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TheGlobeandMail.com – Politics – Letter to PM warns that top-down decision to scrap long-form census is eroding faith in the nation’s statistical agency
Published on Friday, Sep. 10, 2010. Last updated on Saturday, Sep. 11, 2010.   Steven Chase, Ottawa

Former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge and two men who previously helmed the federal civil service are urging Stephen Harper to hand authority over how the census is conducted to the country’s chief statistician.

A letter to the Prime Minister, also signed by former chief statistician Ivan Fellegi, warns the Conservatives their top-down decision to scrap the compulsory long-form census is eroding faith in the nation’s statistical agency.

The four former civil servants warn the decision to make that version of the census optional – despite warnings that the information gathered will be impaired – has called into question the role of the Statistics Canada’s chief statistician.

“Thus public confidence in the agency and the reliability of its statistics are likely to be reduced in the months and years ahead,” their letter said.

The two signatories besides Mr. Dodge and Mr. Fellegi are Mel Cappe and Alex Himelfarb, both former Clerks of the Privy Council, the office that runs the public service.

The Conservative government’s move to change the census triggered a major rift between Ottawa and business groups, social scientists, medical researchers and economists, who warn voluntary surveys don’t paint as detailed a demographic portrait of Canada. Provinces and cities have also complained, saying the change will undermine their ability to plan social programs, in particular for minority groups, and prepare budgets.

The dispute cost Ottawa its chief statistician. Munir Sheikh quit in July after Industry Minister Tony Clement left the impression in public interviews that the veteran civil servant backed scrapping the mandatory census.

The Harper government has staunchly defended the federal cabinet’s right to decide how the census is conducted. Mr. Clement declared in July that Statistics Canada’s employees are not independent of their political masters. “Sometimes some of them like to think they are – but that doesn’t make it so. They report to a minister,” Mr. Clement told The Globe and Mail.

Mr. Dodge and his fellow letter writers want the Conservatives to change Canadian law so that the chief statistician alone decides the techniques and methodology for census-taking.

Such a change would build a wall of independence around Statistics Canada, considered one of the world’s leading statistical agencies.

It would also make it easier for Ottawa to find someone new to lead the now dispirited agency.

On Wednesday, The Globe and Mail published a previously confidential Statscan study that found significant errors can creep into survey results gathered on a voluntary basis.

The June, 2010, internal study, obtained under the access-to-information law, offered an inside look at how new census-taking rules could skew data in a range of areas from housing to demographics.

Statistics experts say the report’s findings demonstrate how minorities and groups such as renters could be measurably underrepresented or miscounted in 2011.

Mr. Sheikh told CTV’s Power Play in an interview on Thursday the internal study “provides the evidence to back up the allegations I made in my [resignation] statement — which was that a voluntary survey cannot become a substitute for a mandatory census.”

The Conservatives have adamantly refused to alter course, saying the 40-page long-form questionnaire is intrusive and that it was unwarranted to threaten jail or cash fines for not completing it. Nobody in Canadian history has ever been imprisoned for failing to answer census questions.

The Tories are replacing an obligatory long-form questionnaire previously sent to one-fifth of households with an optional version sent to one-third of dwellings.

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