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Wayne Smith, who replaced Munir Sheikh as Canada's chief statistician during the census controversy, gives an interview in his Ottawa office on Feb. 11, 2011. (Dave Chan/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
Wayne Smith, who replaced Munir Sheikh as Canada's chief statistician during the census controversy, gives an interview in his Ottawa office on Feb. 11, 2011. (Dave Chan/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

Is census data usable? 'Our thinking has evolved,' chief statistician says Add to ...

We're doing our best to, but at the end of the day, I don't know, you don't know, nobody knows what's going to happen until we've done it.

But we do know it’s significant or else you would have trusted the language question to the long-form census.

The issue there was that there was an explicit legal requirement that those questions be in the census.

The government of Canada, though, fought and made the opposite case. Their legal arguments before the court were that they could fulfill those on the long-form survey.

No, no. There were two questions that were moved, if you look at official language act, under the official languages act, there are regulations and the regulations try and determine where federal departments have to provide services bilingually. Those regulations specific a method of calculation, the method of calculation explicitly refers to decennial census data from basically these three questions: the mother-tongue question, the official languages question, the home language question.

So in those regulations, that information is required from the decennial census, not from the national household survey, the decennial census in order for those regulations to be applied. And those were the reasons for moving the questions is because there was an explicit legal requirement, not a notion that people felt they were entitled, because of some issue, something under law that entitled them to more information. There was explicit reference in law to those questions, and that’s why it was felt - we would have had to change the official languages act and its regulations if we didn’t put those questions on the census.

Why did the government’s lawyers go to court and fight it?

That wasn’t the fight. If you recall, before the court case ever went to court, we’d already removed those questions. There would have been nothing to argue about. The court case was about the people who were contesting, saying, that’s not enough.

What are your instructions to staff on people who refuse to fill out the short form?

Our instructions are to basically, we are going to apply the law in the same way we've applied it in every previous census in whatever form the law is at that time. There are amendments before the House of Commons that may modify it. Nobody is proposing any amendment that would remove a penalty of some kind for refusal to respond to the census -- not the NHS. In our communications to Canadians and our communications to our staff, our approach has always been, to try and persuade people on the merits of the case to participate in the census.

We don't go to the doorstep and say, ‘hi, I’m from the census, you haven’t sent your form in, and you’re going to going to be going to jail or be fined if you don’t do that.’ You go to the door and say, ‘I’m from Statistics Canada, we’ve noticed you haven’t yet returned your census form, I’d like to explain to you why this is so important.’ We try and persuade them, and only if the person is absolutely determined to refuse, will we make them aware that there penalties under the Statistics Act. The only change that we’re making is that we're going to refer to ‘penalties’, because we don't know what those penalties will be.

I understand the government hasn’t actually introduced those changes yet, so we’re still waiting for that. In some of the discussions last summer, there was talk of how we should change the way we report this information so there is no possibility of comparison to previous numbers because it’s apples and oranges.

Our thinking has evolved.

The question is, how will you report things and how will you allow people to make comparisons to previous areas? How will you do that?

A lot of things are written in emails in an organization. Our intention is, and we've had some discussion recently, there's no reason to conclude there's a problem with the data. Our intention is to publish the data in essentially in the same way we published the data in 2006 census, we'll publish for the same geographic areas, we’ll publish for the same variables, subject to the questions being the same. We'll have similar services and products and services. The only situations in which Statistics Canada will not proactively publish information, is where we know beyond the shadow of a doubt there is a problem that makes the data unusable. Otherwise, we will publish the data and we will tell people everything that we know about the quality with the data. So if we think there may be some problems or some issues, we will provide that information.

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