The Harper government is taking a fresh tack in defending its decision to scrap the compulsory long-form census, arguing statistics users opposing the move are upset because they enjoyed a free ride all the years that Ottawa forced Canadians to cough up detailed demographic data.
Industry Minister Tony Clement emerged from the Conservative summer caucus meeting to dismiss a proposed compromise floated by the NDP and Liberals - appearing to dash any remaining possibility that the Harper government might back down in the controversy. A new voluntary version of the long-form questionnaire is slated to go to print next week.
"Yeah, there are groups that are upset. … Hey, listen, they had a good deal going," Mr. Clement said Thursday following a meeting with fellow MPs in Ottawa.
"They got good, quality data and the government of Canada was the heavy. We were the ones who were coercing Canadians on behalf of these private businesses, or other social institutions, or other governments and provinces, for this data. We were the ones threatening Canadians with jail times or with large fines."
The Industry Minister's comments came as the Ontario government turned up the heat in its campaign against the census changes. With premiers gathering in Winnipeg for their annual meeting, Ontario Immigration Minister Eric Hoskins has written Mr. Clement warning the move will erode his province's ability to plan settlement programs for new immigrants.
Mr. Clement, however, said Ottawa no longer wants to act as data collection enforcer for statistics users. "It worked for them. Doesn't mean it worked for other Canadians."
He played down opposition to the changes, which has grown to include the voices of four provinces and one territory, as well as dozens of umbrella groups representing businesses, researchers, economists, doctors and charities.
The Industry Minister suggested the census battle doesn't resonate significantly outside Ottawa. "I think overall this is what I would call a K1A issue," Mr. Clement said, referring to the beginning of the postal code for many government buildings in Ottawa.
Mr. Clement was left to defend the census changes by himself after the Tory caucus meeting. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has not taken questions from journalists in about 30 days, opted against facing the media Thursday.
The Industry Minister, whose handling of the census issue recently triggered the extraordinary resignation of the head of Statistics Canada, cautioned against drawing any inference from Mr. Harper's silence.
"The Prime Minister has a lot of things on his plate," he said. "He's doing his job and I'm doing mine."
The latest Conservative defence, that consumers of statistics got quality data from the mandatory long-form census thanks to the coercive efforts of Ottawa, would appear to be a shift from an earlier defence offered by the Prime Minister's Office.
Back in mid-July, PMO spokesman Dimitri Soudas suggested the census generated bad data, noting in a widely circulated e-mail that "21,000 Canadians registered Jedi knight as a religion in the 2001 census."
Mr. Clement remains adamant that changes to the census will not affect the quality of data collected, even though statisticians warn a voluntary system will not be as accurate.
While every household must still answer basic questions when the census takers come calling, about one-fifth of Canadians have traditionally been required, under threat of fines or jail time, to respond to 50-plus inquiries about their home, work lives and ethnicity.
Mr. Clement said statistics users are free to spend their own money to gather the demographic data they need if they don't like what Ottawa collects.
"All these provincial governments and these social institutions and private businesses - we'll get them some data that will be useful and reliable," he said. "If they don't want to use that data, it's up to them. They can pay for it another way. … You don't have to rely on the government of Canada."
As premiers and territorial leaders meet in Winnipeg, two senior provincial players said they're not tremendously concerned.
Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach said he prefers to take a wait-and-see approach on the proposed census changes.
"Let's see how they develop their plan to provide the information that provinces require," Mr. Stelmach said in an interview Thursday. "If it's not correct information or deficient in some way, then we'll continue to work with the federal government."
British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell said other topics, including health care, education and climate change, are a much higher priority for him.