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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 ...

I pointed that out to Mr. Akerholm [chair of the European Statistical Governance Advisory Board]and suggested he might want to inform people who received the report because he was in error. He was in error because he said the government had used dormant powers, to make a decision. That wasn't true. Not only did they always have the power, it was never dormant, they’ve always actively used it. Every government who approved the census, has taken it very seriously and more than one has intervened in ways to ask for changes to be made. This isn't new. To say it’s a dormant power is completely misleading.

Second thing is, he said that Dr. Sheikh had resigned because he disagreed with the government’s decision, that's not what Dr. Sheikh said.

Their point is that countries should look at this and make sure that statistical agencies are legislatively independent. That was their point.

They're very unclear on their point, unless the argument is that the government should have no role in determining whether the census should be conducted, and what the content of the census is. And is that a realistic view of the world?

I don’t know, it’s not my world, it’s your world. I’m just saying that they said it should be a lesson that other countries should make sure they are legislatively independent.

The international community has expressed views without being well informed. I think that what's really quite surprising is that the world has upheld Statistics Canada as a model statistical agency even though this has been the way censuses have been approved since this agency has been created. Nothing new happened this year.

Well, they moved from a long-form census to an NHS, to a survey.

So what you're saying is Statistics Canada was a model until the government actually did something and exercised its power in a way that some people didn't like.

I agree, except that I can’t find one user that actually likes this.

I'm not saying you can. I’m not trying to convince you that there are people out there who are users of the data who would say that we would prefer this change or process or this method. I'm not saying that, I’m not trying to convince you of that. All I’m saying is that I think some of the statements that have made that have dismissed ... as fundamentally flawed and unusable, the results of the national household survey before we’ve even conducted it, are not based on sound science. They’re not based on sound science.

Point taken. Just to go back to the beginning, 2016, you were asked to look into this, what’s the point of this, are you thinking of moving entirely away from the census.

I think the government wants to step back, there was an interesting debate last fall and we had other people saying Canada should be looking seriously about a register-based census, and other people talking about the U.S. model, and other discussions about, that there are ways to even improve on the model that we're operating in 2011, and saying that it behooves us and the government wants to step back and say, okay, let's look at those other models, what is possible in Canada?

People have suggested that if we could make a register census work in Canada, we could save buckets of money and avoid annoying a whole bunch of Canadians by asking them to fill out forms. They want us to look at those models.

The American model seems to promise more timely data, every year you're getting new data. They run a huge survey called the American Community Survey. And they run it in such a way that if you add up the data, they disperse the sample across the entire country, if you add up the data for five years you can actually publish estimates for very small geographic levels, and since they're doing it on a continuous basis, every year, you can publish new estimates based on the most recent five years of data. It's a rolling census in a way.

That promises more timely data but there's also some serious cost implications in doing that.

So everyone's saying we've heard some really interesting stuff about possible alternate scenarios for the census, so let's step back, look at what happens in 2011, what other countries are doing, other scenarios that people can imagine and make a decision for 2016 on what we want to do.

Is this a request from the minister’s office, or from a minister?

It’s from the government.

So we could move away entirely from a census then on the short form, that’s one of the options?

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