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Megan Harris

Why did top statistician take so long to resign over census? Add to ...

Munir Sheikh's resignation as Canada's 10th chief statistician last week is a dramatic twist in a senseless census debate that erupted with the federal government's decision to replace mandatory long-form census with a voluntary one. While I am skeptical about the wisdom of the government's decision, I can't help but wonder if Mr. Sheikh resigned because of personal principle or mounting external pressure.

Industry Minister Tony Clement says he sought recommendations from Statistics Canada about how to replace the long form survey without compromising the quality of the data collected. He was later given options, we don't know how many, but he chose one of the options presented to him, presumably after considerable discussion with Mr. Sheikh and other senior officials from Statistics Canada. Under the leadership of Mr. Sheikh the department moved forward to execute the minister's decision in preparation of the May 2011 census.

My question is, did Munir Sheikh make it as clear to the minister as he does in his letter of resignation that on "the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census, … it can not." If this is his professional opinion, then why was this option even presented to the minister for consideration?

Ministers rely heavily on the public servants for substantive input in policy development and implementation. As a deputy minister, Mr. Sheikh was responsibility for providing the minister with a credible range of options and the implications for each.

If Mr. Clement received and ignored sage advice against the switch from Mr. Sheikh but decided to move ahead anyway, that's one matter. But it begs another question: did Mr. Sheikh - who held the role of Canada's Chief Statistician since 2008 - speak with any member of Statistics Canada's advisory board to bolster argument against the proposed switch or to seek credible alternative options?

More than a minister or elected official, the chief statistician is be considerably more aware of the potential impact of the proposed switch to the agency's stakeholders including: government departments, municipalities, businesses, community groups, associations and entrepreneurs who rely on the data gleaned from Statistics Canada long-form surveys to make decisions that impact all aspects of Canadian society.

Given the decision to switch to a voluntary long-form was taken months ago but announced mere weeks ago, why did Mr. Sheikh wait until now to tender his resignation if he so strongly believed that the minister's decision compromised his professional integrity? Three weeks ago, we learned what his predecessor, Ivan Fellegi, would have done. He would have quit rather than play any role in making such a switch.

Thanks to the folly of Mr. Clement and his former deputy, Canada is now embroiled in a senseless debate. The only positive outcome from this fracas is that Canadians are likely to better understand the purpose of the intrusive questions and will therefore be more likely to take 30 minutes and complete the forms.

Megan Harris is a senior fellow at the Montreal Economic Institute and former Conservative candidate in Toronto Centre

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