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Munir Sheikh, former Chief Statistician of Canada, shown at his office in Ottawa on Tuesday July 29, 2008. (Sean Kilpatrick For The Globe and Mail)
Munir Sheikh, former Chief Statistician of Canada, shown at his office in Ottawa on Tuesday July 29, 2008. (Sean Kilpatrick For The Globe and Mail)

Munir Sheikh

We still have time to reverse the census decision Add to ...

The Prime Minister, at a recent caucus meeting, took pride in Canada's economic performance and said it is doing better than many other countries. On social outcomes, Canada is generally regarded as a world leader and a trendsetter.

How do we know this? Because of our statistics. Statistics produced by Statistics Canada, an organization that is respected all over the world, an organization whose advice and leadership is sought by many, including international statistical agencies. I know this because I have heard it with my own ears. I was there. And this reputation exists because of the high quality of its data, Statistics Canada's hallmark.

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There are two distinct parts to producing quality statistics. The first is operational. Quality means that the data Statistics Canada releases must accurately reflect the phenomena it is trying to capture. The creation of jobs and the unemployment rate calculated from a mandatory sample must be reflective of the entire labour market to allow the federal government to develop its economic and social policies. The determination of the rate of inflation from a sample of prices must accurately reflect the inflation rate in the country to allow the Bank of Canada to properly set interest rates. The magnitude of the recent financial crisis that was captured in trustworthy Statistics Canada data allowed governments to develop appropriate policies.

The other element of quality is trust in Statistics Canada's numbers. Collecting data is a massive, complex exercise whose many elements are totally unknown to many data users. But they have trust in Statistics Canada data because it is a politically neutral, perceived-to-be-independent, objective and highly professional organization. If this trust is gone, it does not matter how good the data are technically.

The government's decision on the census, the debate flowing from this decision, and some commentary from the government on Statistics Canada's independence and the free ride many users are alleged to enjoy are risking the quality of data from both the operational and trust perspectives. Operationally, the long-form census provides benchmarking for many surveys within Statistics Canada (and outside). These surveys will suffer. By making a decision on a technical issue - which the government has every right to do under the current legislation - the government risks the creation of a trust gap.

It takes ages to establish credibility. It takes much less to tarnish it.

The issue of Statistics Canada's independence is a serious matter, and I implore the government to look into this issue. Otherwise, we may not be able to claim that we are the best, even if we are, because the trust in Statistics Canada will have taken a hit.

I urge the government to rethink its position on the census. We still have time to reverse the decision. One option - and the government would need to consult Statistics Canada on this - would be to send the long-form questions for printing as scheduled. If the decision is reversed in the weeks following debate and analysis, one could simply put the short form and the long form in one envelope for the 20-per-cent sample with a letter from the chief statistician highlighting the mandatory nature of both, at the time the census process begins. If the voluntary survey decision stands after a careful rethink, a letter from the chief statistician could simply confirm the voluntary nature of the long form, sent separately from the short forms as currently planned.

We still have time to determine what must be done on the census issue that is in the best interest of the Canadian people.

Munir Sheikh, Canada's former chief statistician, is a distinguished fellow and adjunct professor at the School of Policy Studies at Queen's University.

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