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Crowds of people walk in front of Union Station in Toronto. (Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail For The Globe and Mail)
Crowds of people walk in front of Union Station in Toronto. (Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail For The Globe and Mail)

Tories refuse to reverse census decision Add to ...

They've been in power for four long years, but Stephen Harper's Conservatives have found a way to cast themselves as anti-government populists once more.

The Tories are refusing to reverse a decision to scrap the mandatory long-form census questionnaire - even in the face of broadening opposition - calling it an unwarranted intrusion into Canadians' personal lives.

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The controversy has morphed into a culture war skirmish between the Harper government and critics, one that allows the Tories - despite running record deficits - to paint themselves as anti-Ottawa for the red-meat Conservative political base vital to winning elections. The most hard-core in this group were horrified when the Tories went deep into debt to finance a two-year stimulus program.

While every household must answer basic questions when the census-takers come calling, about one-fifth of Canadians have traditionally been required, under threat of fines or jail time, to respond to a lengthy list of 50-plus enquiries about their home, work lives and ethnicity.

Not any more. And those who rely on the treasure trove of data generated - from social scientists to health researchers, businesses and charities - are warning in ever-louder voices that this will severely undermine the quality and accuracy of census information.

Asked to explain why this matters to the core Conservative constituency, one senior Tory strategist said, on background: "It's all about the nanny state. Why is it mandatory to tell the government how many bedrooms are in your house?"

The Conservatives are hard-pressed to prove Canadians are substantially concerned about the mandatory long form or have faced significant repercussions. Canada's federal privacy watchdog says it received only three complaints about the census in the past decade: two in 2006 and one in 2001.

But Industry Minister Tony Clement said on Thursday that Canadians worried about the meddlesome arm of the state aren't likely to bring their concerns to the Ottawa-based Office of the Privacy Commissioner. They are likely to tell their MPs.

"If you're concerned about government intrusion, you're not likely to complain to another organ of government," Mr. Clement said in an interview. "They would see it as compounding the issue if they complained."

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner is an arms-length body that is outside the control of the federal government. But Mr. Clement said this distinction is lost on many. "No offence to the Privacy Commissioner, but most people wouldn't understand that [this]person is an independent actor."

The concerns the Tories seek to mollify are similar to the sentiments that drove the right-wing Tea Party movement in the United States to call for a boycott of the 2010 U.S. census.

Mr. Clement dismisses the comparison. "I didn't know about the larger trends. I have no idea what the Tea Party stands for or what they are saying."

He rejects the idea there's an "ideological boundary" to resentment about the mandatory long-form census. "It's people ... who just want to be left alone a little bit."

The Industry Minister said Statistics Canada has assured him enough steps are being taken to make up for the absence of the mandatory long form and ensure the quality of the census is maintained. During the 2011 census, one third of households will receive a voluntary long-form questionnaire. Ottawa will mount an ad campaign to encourage responses.

"I asked [Statistics Canada]specifically, 'Are you confident you can do your job?' They said 'If you do these extra things: the extra advertising and the extra sample size, then yes, we can do our job.' "

On Thursday, the Canadian Medical Association Journal joined the protest, saying in an editorial that scrapping the mandatory long form is a case where "ideology trumps evidence." It warned that the changes could hurt health-care planning and delivery.

Also joining the ranks of critics are the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, saying they rely on the census information to decide where to target services and charitable efforts.

Mr. Clement said the medical journal and other critics should trust Statistics Canada.

"I feel I've relied on the experts I should rely on - which is Statistics Canada. If I can rely on their expertise, then these groups should as well."

Another federal cabinet minister, speaking on condition of anonymity because Statistics Canada is not his responsibility, said he "could care less" about the mounting opposition.

This minister said at every census, Canadians get irritated by questions about ethnicity and living arrangements and this anger turns up on talk radio shows, in letters to the editor, and complaints to MPs.

"They don't have a refined knowledge of Ottawa ... but they do have a natural sense of their right to be free from the prying eyes of big government," the minister said.

Follow on Twitter: @stevenchase

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