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Crowds of people walk in front of Union Station in Toronto. (Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail For The Globe and Mail)
Crowds of people walk in front of Union Station in Toronto. (Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail For The Globe and Mail)

Census revamp prompts debate over the right to reliable data Add to ...

A move to change the way Statistics Canada gathers information for the census - the federal agency's most important job - has triggered a national debate about privacy and the right to have reliable data about Canadians.

On Wednesday, the national business community joined a chorus of others who have complained about changing the long-form census survey from a mandatory to a voluntary one, saying they worry the quality of data will suffer and that fewer people will respond because they won't face a fine or jail time if they opt out.

Industry Minister Tony Clement calls the fears "overwrought." His department has decided the long-form survey will now be sent to 30 per cent of the population instead of the current 20, meaning more people may actually fill them out without "coercion of the state," he said.

"I think you'll have a much more honest and enthusiastic response than you would under the threat of fines or jail times to elicit a response," he told The Globe Wednesday night. "I would question the validity of that."

Every five years, when the census is taken, Canadians flock to their local Member of Parliament to complain about being forced to answer "very intrusive questions," he said, which cover everything from income to education level.

"That's the balance we're trying to strike, between people who are concerned about that as opposed to the need for data."

Business groups say, however, that there is a crucial need for detailed and reliable data. Elizabeth Beale, president of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, said her organization relies on the long-form results. For example, when a large IT company looking to set up a large operation in Halifax approached Ms. Beale with questions about the city's labour pool, she was able to extract this information from the census data.

"You're not going to have the same level of reliability" with a voluntary survey, she said. An adequate number of people may willingly fill it out, she noted, but there's no telling if people from all incomes will respond, or if respondents will be spread out across the country. The mandated survey controlled its sample to mitigate these problems.

Michael Veall, president-elect of the Canadian Economics Association, also depends on it. His work is research intensive, and requires him to find out things like whether or not public dollars spent on higher education yield higher personal incomes.

Although income data is available from Canada Revenue Agency, and education data is probably offered by an independent researcher, Mr. Veall said the two data samples wouldn't match. With the long-form census, he knows exactly which education is tied to what income, and where in Canada that income and education can be found.

"The key thing is that you're asking these things all at the same time," he said.

Independent studies that could take the long-form census's place "will cost enormously more... because they will have to over-sample and repeat call people until they get something like one in five [respondents]" said Paul Jacobson, a statistical consultant and vice-president of the Canadian Association for Business Economics.

All those extra costs would go toward collecting data such as someone's occupation and education level, which the government has gathered since 1871, Mr. Veall said.

The Liberal Party blasted the government this week, saying the census change could also put public programs at risk and that the voluntary surveys may not be distributed fairly.

Liberal MP Marlene Jennings called the move "appalling," saying visible and linguistic minorities could suffer because so many of their demographic studies - that help government organizations and others hone in on the problems in certain geographic regions - rely on the results of long-form census surveys.

The Conservatives should consider the risk of having less reliable data for businesses in the future when they work to compete with giant international economies such as India or China, said the critic for government ethics and democratic reform.

"One of the ways you become more innovative and productive is to have reliable data that allows you then to develop new services and to develop new products," she said. "It's not a mistake that we're having business organizations in different sectors who are also upset."

*Correction: The Census of Canada is conducted every five years. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story.

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