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Prime Minister Stephen Harper asks a question of Industry Minister Tony Clement in this 2006 file photo (J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. Moczulski/Reuters)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper asks a question of Industry Minister Tony Clement in this 2006 file photo (J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. Moczulski/Reuters)

Opinion: John Ibbitson

Long or short, Tories must retreat on the census Add to ...

The Harper government's refusal to listen to reason on the long-form census caused the chief statistician to quit Wednesday night - an extraordinary move - and left Statistics Canada in open revolt. Having gotten into this mess, the Conservatives must now retreat, or put the very future of the census itself at risk.

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Chief Statistician Munir Sheikh's letter of resignation, from a career public servant who has served in the Privy Council Office, in Finance and as deputy minister of Labour, is exceptional.

Clearly, Mr. Sheikh was not prepared to let the government order up a flawed census, while offering Statscan's own official silence as proof that everything is fine.

City and provincial governments had already warned that replacing the mandatory long-form version of the census with a voluntary survey would effectively gut the census.

Every kind of industry, labour, academic and charitable organization had sent petitions, letters and press releases saying the same thing, backed by a truckloads of statisticians and economists.

Now, in his letter or resignation, the nation's chief statistician offered the final verdict: On "the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census.

"It cannot."

Even so, Mr. Sheikh might have stayed on. The loyalty of the most senior public servants to their departments and their sense of duty to the crown is profound. It's what got them there.

What might have pushed Mr. Sheikh over the edge was an interview in which Industry Minister Tony Clement reminded the people at Statscan that they worked in a government department charged with carrying out the orders of their minister.

This was an intolerable truth. The chief statistician's page of the Statscan website, prepared in a happier time, quotes Mr. Sheikh as saying: "we work neutrally and objectively, without interference or influence from any groups or individuals." Such autonomy is embedded within the Statscan culture. Mr. Clement's upbraid violated everything the department believes it stands for. That Mr. Sheikh believed it stood for.

Now the question is: Who will replace him, with the actual census mere months away?

"You could probably find somebody," said Don McLeish, head of the Statistical Society of Canada. "Whether that person would be highly respected within the scientific or statistical community is something else."

Anyone of stature would insist that the integrity of the long form be maintained, which means the government would have to back down. Anyone prepared to carry out the government's orders and conduct only a voluntary survey would have no credibility, either within or outside of the department.

It's July. Not a lot of people are paying a lot of attention to the shenanigans in Ottawa. To secure a credible replacement, Stephen Harper must direct Mr. Clement to say something like: In view of concerns raised by provincial governments and other interested parties, Statistics Canada is directed to proceed with the 2011 census as it has been previously conducted. But to address the rightful objections of citizens who consider the long-form version of the census a violation of their right to privacy, this government will establish a task force ... and so on.

Either that, or this thing will still be making headlines when the leaves begin to fall.



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