When consultant Linda Pickard advises small businesses on their five-year strategies, the first place she turns is Statistic Canada’s reservoir of data from the long-form census.
Ms. Pickard combs through StatsCan’s databases in search of population trends, local economic indicators, ethnic make-up and education levels – important pieces of market information in planning a company’s expansion.
For Ms. Pickard’s clients, and for hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs across Canada, the census is both a direct and indirect source of reliable information, and helps to form a road map for where they want to go. Now, the small and medium-sized businesses who lack the marketing muscle to conduct their own private surveys stand to be among those most affected by the plan to drop the mandatory long-form census.
Alternatives to the census are more costly, more time-consuming and will result in poorer information, says Ms. Pickard, whose firm, Pickard & Laws, is based in Mississauga, Ont. “The picture of life in Canada will be fragmented,” she said. With a voluntary survey, her company “won’t be able to provide the same level of service and quality of information as we’ve been able to do over many years.”
The proposed changes have been widely criticized by economists, educators, city planners and religious groups. In hearings in Ottawa Tuesday, two former chief statisticians for Statistics Canada testified that the quality of data will suffer if the census becomes voluntary. Industry Minister Tony Clement said that the government believes some questions on the mandatory long form invade Canadians’ privacy and should not be conducted with the threat of jail terms.
The Conference Board of Canada, the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce are concerned about the change, and so is Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management and one of the country’s most respected experts on competitiveness and productivity.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which represents 107,000 small business owners, has expressed “grave” concern to Mr. Clement and asked him to hold consultations on the matter.
It produces a number of studies, including comparisons of public versus private sector pay, which rely on the long-form mandatory census. And its members rely on the long form to make decisions on locations, marketing and local hiring, said president and CEO Catherine Swift.
“This is broadly used by lots and lots of people making business decisions,” she said. “I am truly puzzled there was zero consultation. It's very disturbing.”
A voluntary survey will lack sufficient response rates to provide neighbourhood-specific information, critics say. It will also worsen the quality of private sector polls and other Statscan surveys, such as the labour force survey, because the census is used as a benchmark for which all other surveys are weighted.
The housing sector is also worried. Peter Norman, senior director of economic consulting at real-estate consulting firm Altus Group, uses census data to advise developers on planning decisions.
He mines the census for insights into traffic patterns, where to put shopping malls, demographic growth and housing sizes by neighbourhood.
“Just about all the questions municipalities ask of landowners who want to bring forward a vision of what they want to do, require long-form census data to address these questions,” he said. “I don’t know what will happen if we reach a point where we can’t talk about, for example, specific demand for detached homes versus semi-detached houses versus apartments.”
Marketing and polling firms have been among the most vocal in their opposition, not just because of how it will affect their own surveys. Many businesses they advise rely on information derived from the long-form to determine where to locate a store, start their business, or which products to stock on their shelves to fit local demographics, said Jan Kestle, president of Environics Analytics.
“Not having good quality data will make it more challenging to reach customers with good information and make it more challenging for businesses to know what’s going on with stores,” she said.
The proposed changes would result in more junk mail and more telemarketers on the phone, because they will be less able to target their campaigns to specific consumer groups, she added.
BY THE NUMBERS
Years the census has been conducted in Canada, from 1666 to 2006.
Size of Canada’s population in the 2006 census, compared with 3,215 inhabitants in the first census.
Additional cost to market the new voluntary household survey.
Number of households to which the new voluntary survey will be sent.
Number of people who have been jailed in Canada for refusing to complete the mandatory long-form census.