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Anil Arora, Chief Statistician of Canada, at Tunney's Pasture in Ottawa on May 5, 2021.Ashley Fraser/Ashley Fraser

When COVID-19 struck four years ago, it was a nightmare situation for statistical agencies, which rely on finely tuned processes and sometimes field work to produce their reports.

Early on, Statistics Canada decided to focus its resources on a handful of key reports, ensuring that there were clear numbers to illustrate the economic fallout that spread through the country.

“In hockey, you shorten the bench,” explained Anil Arora, the Chief Statistician of Canada, who oversees the agency.

By the summer, Statscan had effectively returned to full operations. But it also went a step further, adding new metrics and publications that offered timely readings of a vulnerable economy.

The agency unveiled monthly estimates of business openings and closings, which helped in tracking corporate activity amid lockdowns. It brought in “flash estimates” to give earlier indications of how key metrics – such as gross domestic product and retail sales – were faring. It also started publishing a real-time indicator of local economic conditions, which now includes places as varied as Kanata, Ont., and White Rock, B.C.

Mr. Arora said this spirit of progress and experimentation is something that he’s tried to impart as chief statistician, a role from which he’s retiring on March 31 after more than seven years at the helm.

“I think pushing the envelope or pushing the boundaries has been my career,” he said in an interview.

When Mr. Arora was appointed chief statistician by the Trudeau government in 2016, it followed a stretch of relative turmoil for Statscan, a usually buttoned-up institution.

His predecessor, Wayne Smith, resigned over the migration of Statscan’s IT infrastructure to Shared Services Canada, which he said was hampering the agency’s operations and threatened its independence.

Munir Sheikh resigned as chief statistician in 2010, a decision tied to the Harper government’s scrapping of the mandatory long-form census in favour of a voluntary survey – a move that was panned by academics for damaging the quality of critical data. (The mandatory long-form census was reinstated for the 2016 edition.)

Despite those high-profile departures, Mr. Arora felt he could steer Statscan in a positive direction. He joined the agency in 1988 and has spent most of his career there, save for a couple stints elsewhere in the public service.

“There’s a bit of confidence that I know how the agency functions,” he said. “I had deep relationships with people within this organization that served me well.”

Mr. Arora has been keenly involved in the push to digitize Statscan’s operations. He was in charge of the 2006 census, the first that offered virtually all households the option of filling out their forms online. This proved handy for the 2021 edition, which enjoyed response rates above 95 per cent, despite the challenges posed by the pandemic.

“When he was running the census, he was the guy that was responsible for taking it from pen and paper to digital,” said Miles Corak, an economics professor at the City University of New York and former Statscan worker.

An issue for statistical agencies – and not only Statscan – is that households and businesses are increasingly tuning out non-census requests, raising concerns about data quality. Response rates to many economic surveys have been falling for years, an issue that predates the pandemic.

Mr. Arora said the agency looks for ways to use alternative data – such as tax records – to supplement its efforts and ease the burden on people filling out surveys.

But there can be pushback to this pursuit of data. In 2018, Statscan was readying a pilot project to obtain the personal banking records of 500,000 Canadian households in order to bolster its reports. Media coverage of the plan sparked a public backlash, and soon after the project was shelved.

“We can only move at the speed of trust,” Mr. Arora said.

Statscan can also serve as an occasional punching bag for its users, who bemoan some of its outdated reports or their troubles in finding data on its website.

Even so, several academics told The Globe and Mail that Statscan has stepped up its communications since the beginning of the pandemic. For example, the Labour Force Survey that was released in April, 2020 – the first major economic report of the pandemic era in Canada – carefully explained major changes in the job market in plain-spoken language.

In subsequent job reports, Statscan has probed some of the defining trends of the past four years, such as the prevalence of Canadians switching to remote work and labour outcomes for recent immigrants.

“Statscan as a whole seems more responsive to preparing online resources to answer the questions an average person (not the economist) is trying to answer,” Tammy Schirle, an economics professor at Ontario’s Wilfrid Laurier University, said by e-mail.

Prof. Schirle pointed to an online hub for food prices. It “was hard, if not impossible, to give people examples of everyday things they could relate to when food prices were climbing. Now, it’s just there and easy to find,” she said.

Last week, the federal government announced that André Loranger will serve as interim chief statistician for six months as it seeks a permanent replacement for Mr. Arora.

“The next chief statistician naturally has big shoes to fill,” Prof. Corak said.

Mr. Arora said he leaves the public service with a sense of accomplishment. “I wanted to leave the place a little better than I found it. I think it is,” he said.

But for Statscan to thrive in a new era, Mr. Arora said it’s critical for various entities – provinces, municipalities, businesses and the public – to support it by sharing their information.

“You can’t do statistics without data,” he said.

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