Ottawa should come to its census: Stop dogging Statscan

Posted on July 8, 2010 in Governance Debates

Source: — Authors: – Life/Health – The federal government is undermining Statistics Canada’s ability to collect data and undertake analyses that are the bedrock of sound public policies
July 8, 2010.    André Picard’s Second Opinion

Statistics Canada is a national treasure – a treasure that is, tragically, being plundered and cheapened by its short-sighted government masters.

The data Statscan collects are invaluable to government, business, charities and, ultimately, every single Canadian. The information and the analysis the agency provides are the bedrock on which sound public policies – social, economic and fiscal – are built.

So why is the federal government undermining the ability of Statistics Canada to collect data?

Ottawa’s decision last week to scrap the mandatory long-form census in favour of a voluntary survey is a case in point. But it is only the latest of many bad decisions.

The Workplace and Employee Survey was axed in 2009; it was the only source of information on job vacancies, health benefits and private pension plans. The Survey of Household Spending has undergone major methodological changes that will deprive us of key information on how Canadians spend, save and borrow. The Survey of Financial Security, which tracks the distribution of assets and debts across regions, income groups, age groups and family types, has been deemed unnecessary. So, too, has the Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants to Canada.

There is also tremendous pressure on Statistics Canada to cut back on analysis, to simply become a mindless gatherer of data in the fine tradition of hewers of food and drawers of water.

All this is occurring, strangely, in the midst of a recession and while economic and social policies are changing markedly: It’s as if our political leaders do not want to know the impact on their constituents, as if they think that political spin is an adequate substitute for sound statistical analysis.

The census is, arguably, Statscan’s most important task. It began in 1841 as a simple counting of people and cows and has evolved into a detailed statistical portrait of Canada that reveals trends and shifts so that public policies can be refined.

The short-form census, which is done every five years, is mandatory. The long-form census, which goes to one in five households, asks more detailed personal information on ethnicity, education and income. For the past 35 years, it was also mandatory, but it will not be starting in 2011.

A spokesman for Industry Minister Tony Clement (who is responsible for Statistics Canada) justified the change by saying the government wants a “reasonable limit on what most Canadians felt was an intrusion into their personal privacy in terms of answering the longer form.” It is notable that every other democratic country in the world believes that such an “intrusion” is justified; many ask far more probing questions than Canada.

There is no doubt that answering questions from Statistics Canada – in the census or otherwise – can be a bother. But the vast majority of citizens accept that it serves a greater public good and do their civic duty.

There are individuals and groups who object to the census for a variety of reasons. One peace activist in Saskatchewan refuses to do it because Statistics Canada buys computer programs from Lockheed Martin, an arms maker. There are those who harbour paranoid Big Brother fears; but anyone who has dealt with Statscan knows that its obsesses about privacy to a fault. (Individual census information is not available until 92 years later, and even then it is difficult to gain access to.)

Then there are those who loudly decry government “intrusions” of all sorts, from census forms to having a driver’s licence to paying taxes. These are the fringe Tea Party types that the Conservative government seems to be pandering to with its decision to make the long-form census voluntary.

While being an anti-government government is fashionable (if not ludicrously hypocritical), the upshot will be a loss of valuable data and a greater reliance on dogma to shape public policy. And, if you follow the government’s logic – however slight it might be – why should the short-form census be mandatory?

While most Canadians will continue to complete the census and other Statistics Canada surveys voluntarily, the fundamental problem is that the less thorough the collection of data, the less reliable the results.

Those least likely to respond to surveys are the most vulnerable (aboriginal people, recent immigrants, the poor) and the most well-to-do. One does not have to be a statistician to recognize how this would skew results. When the census is voluntary, the marginalized become further marginalized, and the wealthy become more comfortably invisible; the disparities at the core of so many health and social problems become glossed over.

Is that the true intent behind these changes? One cannot help but wonder, particularly given the nature of the surveys that Statistics Canada has been forced to cancel or alter.

“These have all been political decisions,” said Armine Yalnizyan, senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. “The decision to stop inquiring about the world around us is as political as the decision to ask questions. The issues that are no longer being probed by the government or Statistics Canada are not going away.”

The current federal government has a reputation for shooting the messenger when it doesn’t like the message. Blaming journalists for public-policy blunders is one thing, but emasculating a world-renowned agency such as Statistics Canada is altogether another.

Yes, the census and other statistical surveys can reveal uncomfortable truths. So, deal with them (or, if you choose, don’t), but don’t pretend they are non-existent by undermining data collection and fudging the data.

On the census, Ottawa needs to come to its senses.

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