The head of Statistics Canada has delivered an extraordinary rebuke to the Harper government over its plan to scrap the mandatory long-form census, quitting his post in a highly public letter that bluntly undercuts Conservative efforts to sell the changes.
Chief statistician Munir Sheikh, who helmed what has been ranked among the top statistical agencies in the world, used his agency's own website as a last act Wednesday evening to fire a shot across the bow of the Prime Minister's Office.
Mr. Sheikh, whose agency relies on rich data to take the collective pulse of Canadians, posted a statement saying the Conservative plan to replace a compulsory census questionnaire with a voluntary one won't work.
This is a public repudiation of suggestions from Industry Minister Tony Clement that Statscan and Mr. Sheikh were of the opinion the shift was acceptable and would produce an equally detailed and accurate picture of Canada.
"I want to take this opportunity to comment on a technical statistical issue which has become the subject of media discussion ... the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census," Mr. Sheikh wrote.
"It can not," he said.
"Under the circumstances, I have tendered my resignation to the prime minister."
The rare spectacle of a career bureaucrat falling on his sword so publicly rather than accept a policy he cannot stomach threatens to deal a fatal blow to Conservative efforts to sell their census changes. Deputy-minister-level civil servants who clash with the government traditionally exit quietly instead of walking away from elite posts on principle.
The Conservatives have so far plowed ahead unmoved by mounting opposition from businesses, provinces, doctors and educators. They say it's an unreasonable invasion of privacy to compel 20 per cent of households to complete a mandatory long-form census with more than 50 questions about home life, work and ethnicity.
As of Wednesday night, however, the Harper government refused to back down - and even attacked Mr. Sheikh in an e-mail to supporters.
Mr. Clement issued a statement acknowledging "with regret" that Mr. Sheikh had resigned but went on to defend the changes and rebut what the departing bureaucrat had said.
The minister conceded the voluntary long form "offers challenges that do not exist in the case of a census that uses coercion to compel completion" but said he remains confident Statscan will make it work: "I believe we can compensate for these challenges and offer data-users high quality and accurate information."
But in a separate e-mail to MPs and party stalwarts, the Tories criticized the civil servant.
"Our approach is about finding a better balance between collecting necessary data and protecting the privacy rights of Canadians," the Tory "info-alert" said.
"It is unfortunate that Mr. Sheikh did not share these objectives."
Mr. Clement has appointed Wayne Smith, an assistant chief statistician, as acting head of Statscan, but Mr. Sheikh's departure leaves the agency demoralized and somewhat adrift. Many if not most of the agency's 6,000 staff are angry and opposed to scrapping the compulsory long form and share Mr. Sheikh's opinion the Tory alternative will not suffice.
Statscan employees say privately the agency has already undergone a significant shift in emphasis under the Harper government - away from social issues and towards more economic subjects. It's also scaled back nuanced analysis - something that made it unique in the world, sources there say. The tone of reports is tilting away from detailed storytelling about Canadian life as workers are ordered to stick to reporting the facts.
Mr. Sheikh's last hours as head of Statscan saw him pause before walking away from his career in Canada's public service. At about 1 p.m. EDT he e-mailed the agency staff to say he was dropping plans for an internal meeting over the controversy in "light of today's media coverage" and was instead pondering his future.
"I am reflecting on my position and that of the agency and will get back to you soon," the e-mail said.
Only hours earlier, Mr. Sheikh had a meeting scheduled with Wayne Wouters, Clerk of the Privy Council, a source familiar with events says. The PCO refused to confirm this.
But by mid-afternoon, following the mass e-mail, Mr. Sheikh was back at his office, apparently carrying on his usual routine. Early Wednesday evening, however, word began to circulate that a final decision had been reached. Not long after, Mr. Sheikh's resignation letter was posted on the agency's website.
It's not clear what media coverage Mr. Sheikh was citing but Statscan employees said privately that comments by Industry Minister Tony Clement in The Globe and Mail Wednesday had caused a commotion in agency ranks. The minister had said Statscan isn't independent.
"Sometimes, some of them like to think they are - but that doesn't make it so," Mr. Clement said. "They report to a minister."
Mr. Clement had also told The Globe he assumed Mr. Sheikh finds the change acceptable because it was the senior bureaucrat who came up with options on how to make the voluntary long form system work accurately.
"I am entitled to believe that when a deputy minister - in this case the chief statistician - gives me a set of options, he is comfortable with those options," the Industry Minister said.
This isn't the first time government has sought to tamper with the census. In November 1984, Brian Mulroney's Conservative administration announced it intended to save money by cancelling the 1986 census. There was an immediate protest from the business community - which said the census data were needed to plan marketing strategies - and Mr. Mulroney's finance minister, Michael Wilson, reversed the decision the following month.
Mr. Sheikh's brother said he hopes the government listens to the growing opposition against the proposed census changes.
"I'm not a statistician, but I know what the world is saying. And if we as the public and media have not been able to convince the government, next time we go to vote, we should keep that in mind. That's the greatness of the system," said Dr. Shamim Sheikh, a University of Toronto professor of civil engineering.
The chair of a committee appointed to advise Statistics Canada said he and other members share "deep regret" about Mr. Sheikh's resignation "and the circumstances which gave rise to it."
Ian McKinnon, chair of the National Statistics Council, issued a statement saying Mr. Sheikh's obligation to keep secret his advice to cabinet ministers "left him unable to defend his professional competence or respond to statements that tended to cast doubts on the professional competence of Statistics Canada."
Mr. McKinnon was referring to the controversy about statements made by Mr. Clement in the last week that left the impression Statscan management was satisfied with the voluntary-form alternative for the next census.
"With Dr. Sheikh's resignation, Statistics Canada, and indeed the nation's statistical system, has lost the committed services of a man of integrity and honour," Mr. McKinnon said.
With reports from John Ibbitson and Daniel Leblanc.