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Former Statistics Canada chief Munir Sheikh waits for the start of testimony at a Commons industry committee hearing into changes to the census on July 27, 2010. (STR/Reuters)
Former Statistics Canada chief Munir Sheikh waits for the start of testimony at a Commons industry committee hearing into changes to the census on July 27, 2010. (STR/Reuters)

Former Statscan chief makes last-ditch plea to save census Add to ...

The man who recently quit as Canada's chief statistician is urging the government one last time to save the mandatory long-form census.

In an opinion article published in Tuesday's Globe and Mail, Munir Sheikh, the former head of Statistics Canada, proposes a simple, very low-tech solution. He recommends that the long form of the census, when it is sent out in 2011, be accompanied by a note from Statscan saying whether filling out the form is mandatory or voluntary, depending on which policy the government finally adopts.

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But Stephen Harper made it emphatically clear Monday that an 11th-hour reversal is not on his agenda. The long form asks personal questions that some Canadians may be reluctant to answer, the Prime Minister told reporters in Vancouver in his first public utterance on the controversy since it broke in July.

"I know some people think the appropriate way to deal with that is through prosecuting those individuals with fines and jail terms," Mr. Harper said. "This government will not do that. In this day and age, that is not the appropriate way to get the public's co-operation."

The Prime Minister's comment appears to close the door to any possible accommodation by the government with the concerns of academics, statisticians, business groups and provincial and municipal politicians, who warn the changes planned for the census will erode its credibility.

Some fear that it may already be too late, because the forms are on their way to the printers.

But in a interview, Mr. Sheikh said he had written the article in an effort to keep alive the possibility of protecting the census's integrity.

"I'm convinced that we really do have more time," he said, "though only Statistics Canada knows exactly how much more time we've got or what other options there might be."

During previous censuses, most Canadians filled out a mandatory short version of the survey, while one-fifth of all households received a longer version. Citing privacy concerns, the Conservatives ordered that filling out the long form be voluntary in 2011.

There is near-universal agreement that making compliance voluntary, even though the number of households receiving the form will increase to one-third, will lead to underreporting by ethnic, linguistic and economic minorities.

Mr. Sheikh became the first deputy minister to resign in protest, after Industry Minister Tony Clement suggested publicly that Statistics Canada had assured him the integrity of the census would be preserved under the new rules.

Falling poll numbers seem to suggest that the Conservatives' position on the census is unpopular, given the virtually united front of opposition to it. If the government were planning a strategic retreat, Mr. Harper could have signalled a willingness to compromise in his remarks. It is by no means unheard of for a prime minister to step into a fray and take a more conciliatory tone than the minister he has sent in to defend the government's policy.

But Mr. Harper's comment in Vancouver seems to be the final word. The Conservatives will proceed with the changes to the census, and count on most Canadians to either forgive or forget this summer storm.

Follow us on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson, @ianabailey

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