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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 ...

Any option that's looked at is potentially an option that could be adopted. Realistically, from a statistician’s point of view, the register-based census is enormously attractive. You get all this data, and you don't have to spend any money, and you get it every year.

But the reality in Canada is that unless you have this population register that people have to keep up to date, you always know where they’re living, you can’t make it work in Canada.

And the privacy issues around linking all these data are huge. So yes, that’s an option that we need to understand and look at and consider the pros and cons. Is it likely? Not very likely.

Do you think it was overblown, what happened last summer?

I think we had a very important debate. The government made a decision based on its values and priorities and Canadians reacted to it and raised all kinds of issues and concerns. And the government heard that and has made a decision to maintain that course of choice. But it was a very important debate and a lot of information was put on the table that will inform future decision-making regarding the census.

I wouldn't say it's overblown. Some elements of the debate are somewhat misleading in the way they’ve been presented to people. Mainly the non-response biases, that's there's no way this can succeed, that's unsupportable scientifically. The notion that's out there that people who are poor or recent immigrants refuse to respond. The problem with those groups isn't that they refuse to respond, the problem is that we never get to them in the first place.

Let me be more precise, refusal maybe is part of the problem, but it’s not the entire problem, and in my view it’s not even the largest piece of the problem. The problem is we don't find them. If you think about, we have a problem with young males. Two guys are sharing an apartment, we send the questionnaire, one guy fills it out, dashes it off, sends it in, and we never get the other one. Recent immigrant just arrived from their home country, they move in with another family while they’re looking for a place to live for a while. Our enumerator shows up, we wind up getting a questionnaire from one of the two households and not the other one.

In some cities there's a problem with illegal basement suites. These are people renting out their basements...obviously people living in these suites are likely to be people who are poor or recent immigrants, students, young males. We go to the door, knock on the door, the people in the house don’t want to tell us about the basement suites.

So it's true that in voluntary surveys, young males, recent immigrants, low-income people are underrepresented. We have not thoroughly assessed that in the 2006 census, I suspect that's equally true in the 2006 census that these people were under-represented. But the reason isn't because that we’re going to the door, and they're saying go away, I don’t want to answer your questions. The reason is because we're not finding them in the first place.

Remember I was talking about these two guys living in the apartment together. If I had a question back from that household, it’s over, I’m not going back there. So the mechanisms that cause those problems are only partially based on whether the survey's voluntary or not. And you can't really conclude that the problems are going to be any worse in 2011 than they were in 2006 based on any scientific theory. There's a higher risk because of the lower response rate, but that's it.

I was going to ask you the obvious question: Would you prefer the old system to this one?

Obviously, I’m a public servant...

Has it made your job harder?

It's challenging, obviously. We have changed course and changing course is obviously more complex than staying on the course you were initially on. But we have changed course very nimbly and we were ready. In terms of our ability to conduct this, we are ready. We have the systems, we've tested the systems, we're hiring the people, we’ve got the logistics in place, we're already operating, there's no problem from my perspective in terms of us being able to conduct this census. Relative to 2006, we had huge problems, we had huge problems hiring in some parts of the country in 2006, we're not seeing that this time around.

The issue now, is, to a significant extent, in the hands of Canadians. Will they participate? If they participate in large numbers, if people encourage them to participate, if they participate across the country and relatively uniformly, we can get very good data out of this survey.

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