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Wayne Smith, who replaced Munir Sheikh as Canada's chief statistician during the census controversy, gives an interview in his Ottawa office on Feb. 11, 2011. (Dave Chan/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
Wayne Smith, who replaced Munir Sheikh as Canada's chief statistician during the census controversy, gives an interview in his Ottawa office on Feb. 11, 2011. (Dave Chan/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

Is census data usable? 'Our thinking has evolved,' chief statistician says Add to ...

The following is a full transcript of an interview with Wayne Smith, who was officially named Statistics Canada’s new chief statistician last month. He took over from Munir Sheikh, who resigned last summer amid the controversy over the Harper government’s decision to cancel the mandatory long-form census. The Conservatives defended their decision on grounds it was intrusive and coercive to force one-fifth of Canadian households to answer a detailed list of 40-plus questions on their home, work life and ethnicity.

The short-form census of 10 questions is still mandatory though and Statscan is moving ahead with voluntary long-form survey as a replacements. Critics say it will yield poorer data and will fail to accurately measure smaller sub-groups in the population who may just ignore the survey, leading to problems for users of the data, from governments to researchers to businesses.

Mr. Smith, however, said there’s no scientific basis for predicting the optional survey will yield poorer data, in part because it will be sent to a wider group of Canadians: one-third of households instead of one-fifth.

The interview took place at the agency’s Ottawa headquarters on Feb. 11, 2010.

STEVEN CHASE: I suppose if you asked your users to vote whether they wanted the long-form census or the NHS, they'd pick the long form census. I guess we're curious about what we're going to end up with now given we've got a survey that is not a census.

What do you expect will be the best you can hope for in terms of the response rate [for the NHS]

WAYNE SMITH: I guess the answer is it depends. And it really depends on our efforts to engage Canadians and to convince them of the importance of the census and the National Household Survey.

We’ve used the planning assumption of 50 per cent [response rate] Our plans have been based on achieving a 50-per-cent response rate.

We’ve never done a survey on this scale, on a voluntary basis before. We haven’t needed to do a survey on a voluntary basis in a relatively charged environment, where people have taken strong views and positions in the past.

So we’re in unexplored territory.

Fifty per cent therefore was our planning assumption but it is possible to do – in our ongoing voluntary surveys, we typically see response rates significantly higher than that.

We decided not to be ambitious and set the target higher than the 50 per cent. We'll see what happens.

What happens is going to depend ...

The procedures and everything else are in place. We're using essentially the same infrastructure, the same kind of approach we used in 2006.

The census, in terms of the content, the length, the methods that we're using, the systems that we're using, the staff that we are using, the method of collection we're using, are pretty much equivalent.

The only difference that's different in 2011 for the National Household Survey is that the survey is voluntary and the sample is bigger.

What was the response rate for the long form census [in 2006]

Ninety-four [per cent]

But 50 per cent I would emphasize is a planning assumption and possibly we will do much better.

But we've been using that [50 per cent target]in establishing our plans.

So we’re actively engaged ...

To some extent it is now in the hands of Canadians.

Will Canadians participate? Will they respond voluntarily?

And that, to a significant extent, is in the hands of Canadian institutions.

Will municipal governments, provincial governments ... will Canadian businesses, will ethnic organizations ... will health organizations across Canada come out in support of not only the 2011 census but also the National Household Survey?

When you say institutions need to support it, do you mean doing their own advertising, like community ...

It can be as simple as ... You can think of the employees of those organizations, you can think of the stakeholders in the organization, you can think of the members in those organizations; you can think of the clients of those organizations.

Organizations have methods of communicating with all of those people. So it might be in an employee newsletter carrying an article about how important the census is for their particular organization, how the data is used.

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