In his testimony today before the Commons Industry committee, former chief statistician Munir Sheikh did not contest the government's right to move away from a mandatory census form. And, quoting a former Clerk of the Privy Council, he affirmed that, having given fearless advice (presumably against the move), his responsibility as a deputy minister was to implement the government's lawful decision loyally.
Why then did he resign last week?
Contrary to some previous reports, it was not anything that his minister, Tony Clement had said. In fact, Mr. Sheikh did not want to discuss what the Minister had said, on the basis that it didn't matter. Instead, he explained that he had resigned because of a headline in The Globe and Mail that day that read "Statscan head finds change acceptable, Clement contends." The impression created by that headline, Mr. Sheikh said, meant that he could no longer lead Statistics Canada.
Is this what the governance of Canada has come to? The chief statistician resigns because of a sub-headline on page 4 of The Globe and Mail?
Update For the record, here's how Mr. Clement explained the decision process to the Star's Bruce Campion-Smith a few days before Mr. Sheikh resigned:
"There are Canadians around this country who were concerned about answering . . . very intrusive questions about their personal lives. So I went to StatsCan. They're the experts. I said to Stats Canada, 'Give us some options. Is there a way that we can have a balance, get the data that everyone hankers for . . . but at the same time do so in a way where people can opt out if they have a conscientious objection'."
"StatsCan gave me three options, each of which they thought would work. I chose one of those options with their recommendation."
He said he asked whether the voluntary survey would produce "robust" data. Stats Canada replied "in no uncertain terms, 'Yes, it would give us the data that everybody hankers for'."
And here's what Mr. Clement said to The Globe and Mail's Steven Chase on the eve of Mr.Sheikh's resignation:
Q: What I don't understand is this: the impression we've got from your comments over the last few days is that Statscan is A-OK with this. That this is a perfectly acceptable substitute for the mandatory long form -- and they signed off on that. That they said this will satisfy everything necessary to produce a statistically valid census that is no different from the last one.
A: Right and I do assert that. When an agency of government reports to its minister and gives that minister options, I am entitled to assume that they are comfortable with those options ...
Q: So you assume that is the case ...
A: I think it is the case. I specifically had that dialogue with them. That if we went to a voluntary census and if we did the measures that they recommended, that we could mitigate and/or eliminate the legitimate concern [about]going from a mandatory to a voluntary census.
And I came away with the belief that we had reached a consensus.