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Industry Committee

Census burden 'colossally inflated,' MPs told Add to ...

Political posturing dominated a debate about the government's decision to scrap the mandatory long-form census at parliamentary hearing Friday with Conservative MPs trying to make opposition members seem out of touch with the common man and their rivals in opposition trying to make the Tories appear out of touch with common sense.

Conservative members of the standing committee on industry, science and technology did their best to trip up those experts called by opposition members to defend the mandatory long-form. And opposition members did the same to the people called by the Tories.

The Globe and Mail's Steven Chase is in the committee room. Follow @stevenchase on Twitter for live updates.

One of them was Joseph Lam, the vice-president of the Canada First Community Organization, who questioned the validity of the answers provided, saying he knows people who "just for the sake of filling out the form, just put in all kinds of information."

Mr. Lam conceded under questioning from New Democrat MP Brian Masse that he had never been asked to complete a long-form census. "Maybe I am just the lucky one," he said. "But I have heard people say it's 40 pages and they just looked through it. ... They don't want to reveal their personal information and if you put them in jail, maybe, I don't know."

Mr. Masse noted that no one has ever gone to jail for failing to complete the census.

James Henderson, a farmer who also spoke in favour of scrapping the mandatory long-form census, said the process was not only burdensome, but also costly. Mr. Masse asked him how much he had to spend to fill in the form.

"In dollar value, it would be hard to do, but we had to involve accountants and it did take considerable [amounts]of my own personal time," Mr. Henderson replied.

Under further questioning, however, it emerged that it was not the long-form census but the census of agriculture that required the services of accountants to complete. That census remains mandatory.

Mel Cappe, the president of the Institute for Research on Public Policy, said moving to a voluntary census would definitely be less burdensome for Canadians but the reliability of the data would suffer - and that is what the government must balance.

But Michael Ornstein of the Canadian Association of University Teachers said he did not believe completing the census really was such a burden.

"One fifth of the population gets the mandatory census every five years," Mr. Ornstein said. "So I would get one every 25 years. But actually there is only one filled out per household. Typically only person in the household would do it. So, perhaps every 25 years, I would fill out on average half a census. So over 50 years, I would fill out a full census and that would take 20 minutes or 30 minutes. So the whole issue of the amount of burden, it seems to me, it's just colossally inflated."

Conservative MP Mike Lake, however, pointed out that a witness at an earlier committee hearing had said "when you force people to answer questions that they don't want to answer, there are significant concerns about the accuracy of the information that you're getting."

Mr. Lake added: "I have had several people say 'you know what, I filled it out because it was mandatory, I didn't want to fill it out, but I certainly didn't feel obligated to get into great detail in terms of the answers I was giving.' "

The hearing will continue until late in the afternoon.

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