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Industry Tony Clement gives an interview at his Parliament Hill office on Nov. 5, 2010. (DAVE CHAN/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
Industry Tony Clement gives an interview at his Parliament Hill office on Nov. 5, 2010. (DAVE CHAN/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

Clement urges Canadians to complete long-form census substitute Add to ...

It's now legal to be a refusenik when Statistics Canada comes calling with a long survey of questions about your background, household and work life - but Ottawa says it would still rather you weren't.

Industry Minister Tony Clement lauded the fact Thursday that a Saskatchewan woman avoided jail or a fine after her recent conviction for a 2006 refusal to fill out the mandatory long-form census - the same questionnaire the Conservatives made voluntary in 2010.

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But in the same breath Mr. Clement is urging Canadians to embrace the optional 2011 version of the survey with its 35 pages of questions that probe subjects such as religion, ethnicity and finances.

It's a change of emphasis from last summer. Back then the minister said the survey asks some "personal and intrusive" questions as he defended Ottawa's decision to make it voluntary in the face of widespread criticism that an optional approach would erode demographic data on Canada.

The questionnaire - now called the National Household Survey - needs all the help it can get in order to overcome what are expected to be initially high refusal rates when it's mailed to one in three households this summer. Briefing notes for Mr. Clement disclosed during the census furor last year showed officials expect only 50 per cent will comply when first asked.

Census-takers anticipate they will have to hound Canadians in order to drive up response rates and have forecast the best they can expect is 65 per cent to 70 per cent compliance - yielding a poorer demographic snapshot than the old system. The response rate for the mandatory long-form census approached 100 per cent.

The risk for the Conservatives is that the voluntary survey will fail to generate an adequate response, significantly eroding the quality of the collected data and confirming critics' predictions.

Mr. Clement's exhortation for Canadians to embrace the survey came hours after a Saskatoon judge spared Sandra Finley imprisonment or penalties for refusing to fill out this questionnaire in 2006. She objects to the fact that Statscan has purchased software for the census from U.S. defence manufacturer Lockheed Martin.

In rendering her decision, Madame Justice Sheila Whelan noted the Harper government has since made the survey voluntary - meaning any penalty applied to Ms. Finley would be little deterrent for others.

"I am pleased that Ms. Finley did not receive a formal sentence. It's our government's position that there are other ways to collect useful and usable data than by threatening Canadians with jail time," Mr. Clement said in a statement. "That is why we will be introducing legislation to eliminate such threats."

"However, completing the census is important for data purposes so I do encourage Canadians to comply and to participate in the National Household Survey in the coming months."

The short-form census of about 10 questions - such as name, address and marital status -is still mandatory and begins in May. The voluntary long-form survey will commence about four weeks later. It will be sent to one-third of households while the former long-form census was sent to one-fifth of residences.

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