The debate over the demise of the mandatory long-form census has reached the city level in Canada, where mayors and local officials say the cancellation has hampered the ability to plan and support the needs of their communities.
Toronto Mayor John Tory told The Globe and Mail he plans to raise the issue at the big city mayors' meeting this week.
The move comes as a vote will be held Wednesday in the House of Commons on a private member's bill from Liberal MP Ted Hsu that proposes to reinstate the census and empowering Statistics Canada's chief statistician. The federal government cancelled the long form in 2010 in favour of a voluntary household survey. Many had warned that the switch – at an extra cost of $22-million – would mean lower response rates and a poorer basis upon which to develop social and economic policies.
Across the country, cities are feeling the impact of the census changes, said Brad Woodside, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and mayor of Fredericton.
"We've heard from our members that the change to the new National Household Survey is impacting their ability to effectively plan and monitor the changing needs of their communities," he said in an e-mailed statement to The Globe. "We support all efforts to increase the reliability of the data from the census."
Local governments rely on this information to understand the changing needs of communities, and make a range of decisions, "from where to establish new bus routes, build affordable housing and provide programs for new Canadians, he said. "We continue to call on Statistics Canada to work with municipalities to provide communities of all sizes the most reliable information from the available data."
Mr. Tory said he will raise the issue with the mayors of the country's largest cities when they meet in Toronto later this week. The topic is not on the agenda for the gathering, which begins Wednesday evening, but he said he can bring it up in informal discussions.
"I believe you really should try to have the best possible evidence in front of you when you are making important decisions," he said Tuesday. "I can ask if this is a problem they are facing."
Toronto's manager of social research told The Globe last week that the switch has driven costs higher because of the need to purchase supplementary data and in extra staffing hours to check whether the data is comparable over time. It's become more difficult to plan which low-income neighbourhoods are most in need of long-term investment and how to match services with changing demographics. "It's affected us," said Harvey Low, manager of social research at the City of Toronto. "It definitely has had an impact in the way we plan for services. It's basically staff time and dollars spent on acquiring other sources of data, which may or may not be as useful as the long-form census once was."
A website that lobbies for more accessible data, called Datalibre.ca, lists 11 individuals and organizations that supported the government's decision to scrap the census and 488 who oppose it. Those who were against the move include 42 cities – from Red Deer to Montreal, Victoria and Fredericton.
Regina's mayor said the loss of detailed data is a concern. He wants the long-form reinstated.
"Issues related to immigrants, the labour market, demographics, all of that foundation … is based on less-certain information, and therefore there's a problem," said Michael Fougere. "I didn't understand the reasons for going away from it in the first place because it's a very rich database that provides good programming, good policy. The reason for moving away wasn't clear to me so we should just go back to that."
In Vancouver, city planner Michael Gordon said the end of the mandatory census is a "significant issue," hampering the ability to analyze infrastructure needs, such as transportation planning, along with housing, particularly affordable housing. Mr. Gordon, president of the Canadian Institute of Planners, has found some data from NHS "fishy," and says there has been a "very disappointing" impact in the ability to provide sound advice based on factual information.
"I'm just not confident that when the federal government passed this legislation that they really thought through the implications it was going to have on making decisions on public policy," said Mr. Gordon, who is also a senior planner for the City of Vancouver. "I really hope they revisit it – it's important given the people paying taxes and the needs they have for services. Politicians need better information for making those decisions."
"We're very suspicious of the numbers. And here we're expected, as professionals, to be providing decision-makers with good projections for the investment of infrastructure, investment in transit and making decisions on things like transit service for the future."
"This isn't just a researchers' issue. This is ultimately where politicians have to make decisions on the use of taxpayers' money."
There have not been good alternative sources of information with reliable comparable data, he said.