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Newly sworn in Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Singh Bains shares a laugh with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a ceremony at Rideau Hall, in Ottawa, on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The new Liberal government is bringing back the mandatory long-form census, and the former Conservative minister who was responsible for its cancellation in 2011 says, in hindsight, he would have done things differently.

In a symbolic gesture meant to distinguish Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's governing style from that of predecessor Stephen Harper, two Liberal cabinet ministers were dispatched Thursday to say their government's first order of business would be to require completion of the long-form census that is sent every five years to 20 per cent of Canadian households.

Navdeep Bains, the new Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, and Jean-Yves Duclos, the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, told reporters that the government is restoring the collection of accurate data to inform "evidence-based" decision-making.

"We have seen the comments of the academic community over the last few years and also the reaction of Statistics Canada, a very professional agency," said Mr. Duclos, the former head of the economics department at Laval University. "We are moving to 2016 with a better system that will be less costly and more reliable and people like me are delighted."

Conservative MP Tony Clement, the former industry minister who cited privacy concerns when he cancelled the long-form census of 2011 and replaced it with a voluntary national household survey, said he would not criticize the Liberals for undoing his efforts.

Mr. Clement told reporters on Thursday that the decision to bring in a voluntary census had been made "collectively" in 2010 by the Conservative government. In hindsight, he said, "I think I would have done it differently."

There may be better ways to capture data while protecting the privacy and security of people, said Mr. Clement: "I'll take the blame for that – I should have posed that question six years ago."

The cancellation of the mandatory long-form census was widely criticized by scientists and others who warned that the data collected would be of poor quality. It also prompted the resignation of Munir Sheikh, Canada's chief statistician.So it was no surprise that its reinstatement received widespread praise from academics, civil servants and social-justice advocacy groups.

Any Canadian who finds a long-form census on their doorstep in 2016 but fails to complete it could be hit with a fine of as much as $500 and a jail term of up to three months. The law requiring those penalties for non-compliance was never changed – it simply did not apply to the 2011 national household survey.

But Mr. Bains and Mr. Duclos either did not know, or did not want to discuss, what consequences would befall those who do not co-operate.

Reporters asked the ministers seven times to say whether there would be penalties for non-compliance and, each time, the ministers responded by discussing the importance of persuading Canadians to take part – or the fact that most people take it upon themselves to complete the forms. "If you speak to Canadians and you get them engaged in the process, they will fill out the information, and that's what we are focusing on because we need good, reliable data," Mr. Bains said.

Ather Akbari, an economics professor at St. Mary's University in Halifax, relies on census data dating back to 1981 for his studies of immigrants in the labour market. He said restoring the mandatory questionnaire "will help to set up evidence-based policy." And in his own work, he added, "it will help me draw meaningful comparisons from the past."

Alain Bélanger, Statscan's former assistant director, said the findings of the voluntary household survey distributed in 2011 were clearly skewed. If the government had opted for a voluntary survey again in 2016, he said, the results would have been even worse because bad data would have built upon bad data.

"Of course, there is no way to correct the 2011 data so we will have a gap in the historical data," said Mr. Bélanger. "So it's better to start to correct as soon as possible and it's better late than never."

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