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The Globe and Mail

Gordon Campbell defers to Ottawa on census flap

British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell speaks at a news conference April 30, 2010.

Troy Fleece/ The Canadian Press/Troy Fleece/ The Canadian Press

Premier Gordon Campbell is remaining on the sidelines while several municipalities, public health offices, schools and many small independent businesses are lining up against Ottawa's cancellation of the mandatory long-form census.

Despite growing concern among those who rely on the data, Mr. Campbell has deferred to Ottawa, saying it's the federal government's responsibility to carry out the census while protecting people's privacy.

He was confident that federal Industry Minister Tony Clement would "act appropriately" after listening to the ongoing public discussion, he has told reporters. "The province will work with the information we can get to make the best decisions we can," he said.

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However, with committee hearings slated for Tuesday in Ottawa, representatives from the Vancouver Board of Trade, the Vancouver School Board, the Union of British Columbia Municipalities and some municipalities - including Vancouver, Kelowna, Victoria, Chilliwack, Nanaimo and the Fraser Valley Regional District - are speaking out against the move.

Several provinces, including Quebec and Ontario, have also criticized Ottawa's decision, as have numerous statisticians, researchers, academics, charities and businesses outside British Columbia.

Bernie Magnan, chief economist at the Vancouver Board of Trade, has filled out the mandatory form twice. "You have to think about it and fill out more information, and you grumble a little bit as you fill it out," he said Monday in an interview.

But he felt the inconvenience was worth it when he considered how the information would be used. He enumerated several reasons that small business has for relying on the census: "for location, do I need to invest, do I need to expand, do I offer my services in this area, what kind of goods should I carry, what sort of services should I offer in an area," he said. "For many of those companies, [the census]represents a gold mine, in terms of information that they can then use to help make business decisions. It is not the only thing, but it certainly is an important part of it."

Businesses would be required to pay for surveys to collect the information if it was not available through the census, Mr. Magnan said, but many small- to medium-sized companies can't afford that. And while the mandatory census has every demographic, whether poor or rich, young or old, voluntary surveys are often not filled out by the extremely well off or those below middle income. "Most surveys tend to be skewed," he said.

Patricia Daly, the chief medical officer at Vancouver Coastal Health, said public health specialists across Canada also need the data, which "is used in planning for all health services." Officials look to the census to measure characteristics that may put people at increased risk for illness or disease, in order to intervene with public health programs, she said. The quality of data will be of a poorer quality if health officers must rely on the random sampling that Ottawa says will replace the mandatory census, Dr. Daly added.

Vancouver City Council unanimously passed a motion calling on the federal government to reinstate the mandatory long form questionnaire. The census provides information about the changing nature of the city and its neighbourhoods that is not available from other sources and plays a critical role in setting priorities and policies related to housing, work, education, transportation, child care and family life, councillors stated in the resolution.

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Vancouver School Board chairperson Patti Bacchus said the board relies on the mandatory long-form census to target funding for the most vulnerable population based on social and economic statistics. Allocation of youth family workers and counselors could be affected if the long form is scrapped.

"It really is a helpful piece of information," she said, adding that the board was ""very concerned" about the end of the mandatory form.

With a report from Rebecca Lindell

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