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Restoring the long-form census is a good start, but more data needed

Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains holds a copy of the long-form census on Parliament Hill on Thursday.

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau kept a key election promise on Thursday when, just 24 hours after being sworn in, his new government announced it will restore the mandatory long-form census in time for the 2016 count. This is great news.

It was the Conservatives who scrapped the mandatory census in 2010 and replaced it with the voluntary National Household Survey. That decision stands as one of the most retrograde of the Harper government years. Nations need foundational and authoritative data in order to create useful policy on a vast range of issues, from poverty to housing to services in remote regions. But the Harper government found it more useful to portray the census as a coercive threat to Canadians' privacy, and to scrap it for perverse ideological reasons.

It was, in short, a stupid decision. The 2011 voluntary census saw a low participation rate of 68.6 per cent and produced contaminated results that broke the continuity of the once-pristine data captured every five years in the national census. The Harper government damaged an invaluable public asset entrusted to it, in order to win a few narrow-cast votes.

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Now the census is back, and with it no doubt the phantom threats of coercion and invasion of privacy concocted by the previous government. Such nonsense should be ignored.

Yes, failure to fill out the mandatory form can result in a fine or jail under the law, but no Canadian has ever been jailed, and virtually all recalcitrant filers end up sending in their forms when pressed. As well, the government says it will focus on explaining the importance of filling out the census and engage Canadians in what amounts to a national project for the good of all.

By keeping its promise, the government has demonstrated its commitment to data-based decision-making. But restoring the census is not enough.

Statistics Canada's budget was cut swiftly and steeply during the Harper years, to the point that it has at times been unable to complete surveys related to the labour market and other key economic areas. If the Liberals are truly committed to data-based decision-making, they must find the money to allow StatsCan do its job properly. The mandatory census is only the beginning.

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