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Clement accused of misrepresenting census impact

Industry Minister Tony Clement

Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Growing unrest within Statistics Canada and growing anger from groups of every political persuasion have left Stephen Harper's government facing a revolt over its plans to end the mandatory long-form version of the census.

Officials within Statscan believe Industry Minister Tony Clement is misrepresenting the advice he has been receiving from the internationally respected agency charged with gathering data on Canadians.

Mr. Clement has said Statscan officials reassured him the agency can manage the 2011 census effectively without forcing some people to fill out the longer version of the form.

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That's not what Mr. Clement has been told, according to a source close to the story who asked not to be identified, and Statscan officials expect chief statistician Munir Sheikh to come to the agency's defence by saying so.

The minister's claims have angered and demoralized a staff already under pressure from budget cutbacks, which have led, for example, to less thorough regional analysis of statistical trends.

This assault on the integrity of the general census is, for many of the 6,000 workers within the agency, particularly galling.

"The census is the flagship of the department," said one person inside Statscan. "If you want to demoralize staff, there's no bigger target."

This is not about pointy-headed researchers. It is about business who needs the information for product development and marketing. It is about charities and NGOs targeting. It is about public health authorities making us healthier. Mel Cappe, Institute for Research on Public Policy

Mr. Sheikh has announced he will hold a town hall with employees on Wednesday to answer concerns. The meeting is closed to the media and Mr. Sheikh is not granting interviews. Mr. Clement's office did not return interview requests.

Don Drummond, a member of Statistics Canada's advisory council, said "all of us were shocked" by the news that the mandatory long-form census was being abandoned.

The approximately two dozen members of the advisory council are appointed by the industry minister, and advise the agency on how better to carry out its mandate.

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Mr. Drummond, who recently stepped down as chief economist of the TD Bank, said the council unanimously believed that abandoning the mandatory long-form census would skew the 2011 results, causing a statistical break with previous surveys that would it make impossible to read and project trends accurately.

In a letter sent to Mr. Clement on Monday, two dozen leaders from business, labour, government and academia united in warning that voluntary compliance for those receiving the long form of the census would gravely compromise its integrity.

Response rates from "the very poor, aboriginal communities, recent immigrants and some ethno-racial communities, will likely be quite low," the letter states. As a result, "the impact of these changes will be disproportionately borne by those who are already most vulnerable."

The two dozen signatures included Mel Cappe and Alex Himelfarb, former chiefs of the federal public service; Roger Martin, the dean of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management; Roger Gibbins, who heads the Canada West Foundation, a generally conservative think tank' and Carol Wilding, head of the Toronto Board of Trade.

Ms. Wilding vowed to "reach out" to other urban boards of trade to garner support. "This is a decision that affects the whole country," she said in an interview. "All urban centres across Canada have similar needs" for census data, she observed.

"This is not about pointy-headed researchers," said Mr. Cappe, who was clerk of the Privy Council under prime minister Jean Chrétien and now heads the Institute for Research on Public Policy. "It is about business who needs the information for product development and marketing. It is about charities and NGOs targeting. It is about public health authorities making us healthier."

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A spokesman for Mr. Clement said the minister would comment when his office receives the letter.

Ivan Fellegi, who led Statscan for 22 years before retiring in 2008, said the idea of a voluntary census never came up while he was there. He said he worries that the change would cost more and produce less valuable data.

"I would have resigned over it, because I wouldn't have wanted to be associated with an exercise that will waste money," he said, adding that the risk is too great that fewer people may respond to the census, even though it will go to more homes.

At least one Conservative member of Parliament is also concerned by the census decision. In a letter obtained by CBC, Edmonton MP James Rajotte wrote to Mr. Clement "on behalf of a number of my constituents who have expressed concern" about making the long-form version of the census a voluntary exercise.

Mr. Rajotte asked Mr. Clement to explain his rationale "as well as the steps our government is taking to ensure that this change will not negatively impact the quality or accuracy of Statistics Canada's work."

With a report from Sarah Boesveld

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About the Authors

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

Tavia Grant has worked at The Globe and Mail since early 2005, covering topics from employment and currency markets to trade, microfinance and Latin American economies. She previously worked for Bloomberg News in Toronto and Zurich, writing on mining, stocks, currencies and secret Swiss bank accounts. More

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