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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)

Number-crunchers' Vancouver convention set to hail Statscan's ex-chief Add to ...

He ran the U.S. census in 2000 and built a long career on stats, but John Thompson is the first to admit the world's biggest confab of number crunchers can get awfully dry.

"You have to picture 5,000 statisticians in the same place, talking about statistics," Mr. Thompson said. "These are people who have been really into mathematics and things like that since high school. But you know what? This one might actually be interesting."

The added spice in Vancouver, where the annual Joint Statistical Meetings are being held, goes beyond the whimsical T-shirt slogans always in circulation. ("Statistics Means Never Having To Say You're Certain," "Friends Don't Let Friends Drink and Derive.") This year, an unassuming man formerly in charge of Statistics Canada is quietly becoming a bit of a hero among his peers.



The Canadian chorus against the change broadened again on Friday, when the Conference of Bishops wrote to Industry Minister Tony Clement urging him to scrap the move.


Munir Sheikh is scheduled to appear Monday on a panel at the conference where he will explain how government statistics make a difference. He will also be glad-handed by his peers for resigning from government over the decision to make the long-form census voluntary.

"You have to admire the head of Statistics Canada for sticking to his principles," said Mr. Thompson, who retired from public service and now works in the private sector. "It's emblematic of how serious many people take their responsibility to be independent and objective."

The trials of Mr. Sheikh have turned into a Canadian drama, but when Mr. Thompson's wife joins him in Vancouver, will she be swayed from the charms of Stanley Park or Granville Island into the conference hall? "No … no," Mr. Thompson said. "You'd have to see it to understand."

The Chicago-based statistician then laughed at the details of Canada's plan to pass out more questionnaires to make up for less compliance. He was part of a 2003 experiment in the United States to make voluntary the Census Bureau's own detailed questionnaire, known as the American Community Survey. Statisticians quickly concluded the data would be less reliable and more expensive to obtain.

The Canadian chorus against the change broadened again on Friday, when the Conference of Bishops wrote to Industry Minister Tony Clement urging him to scrap the move.

"At the diocesan and national levels, this is one of the only ways we learn the geographic and demographic profile of the areas where our services are required," wrote Bishop Pierre Morissette of Saint-Jérôme, Que. "This information is crucial for all religions."

Dozens of charities, medical associations, municipal and provincial governments, unions and statisticians have come out against the decision.

Room for the Conservative government to back down is closing, however. The new voluntary census form is scheduled to go to the printers on Aug. 9.

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