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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 ...

And the sampling error?

We have never traditionally provided the sampling error from the census. In fact that was one of the big surprises that we had recently was discovering how high the sampling error was on some of the data we published in 2006. We'll certainly give some indications on the sampling error. But if we've done comparisons to 2006 or have other information that would guide us, to suggest that this data is simply wrong and not only wrong, but massively wrong, we won't publish it. It will still be available if somebody asks for it, because under Access to Information, if the data isn’t confidential, we have to provide it anyway. We will not publish information that we have clear evidence presents a problem. And you may be surprised to learn that we have had problems like that in the past. In the 1986 census we had asked a question about Aboriginal origin, where the data was fundamentally flawed, and we ultimately didn’t disseminate it because we had problems with the response. So it happens.

To the extent that we know we’ve got a problem that in our view makes the data unusable, we won't publish it. But otherwise we will publish it and people will be able to make comparisons to the 2006 census and previous censuses based on the data.

I’m sure users would have preferred to keep the long-form census. I’m sure you’re aware of the concerns raised by different groups, whether it’s researchers or it’s health researchers. In some of the briefs we got from Access to Information, HRSDC told StatsCan that the less reliable data would compromise their ability to determine EI eligibility. Indian and Northern Affairs says it would effectively hurt their ability to effectively manage and evaluate performance in areas of health and housing. The province of Ontario, saying we need this for our tax and budget decisions.

Can you assure these people that they have no reason to worry?

No, I told you a minute ago. Nobody knows what's ultimately going to happen. And I told you there's heightened risk because of the lower response rate. There’s not an a priori reason, that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. So we won't know until we're out the other end. But neither does anybody else. All I’m saying is that nobody can draw firm conclusions that this data is going to be fundamentally flawed. There's no scientific basis for that. We will not know until we come out the other end. I understand that people perceive the higher risk, and they would rather that the risk wasn't there. And the perception is that if the long-form had remained mandatory, that risk would not be there, or would be smaller actually. And I understand that I don't know either and I can't give assurances because I won't know what I've got until we've actually gone thru this process. We've never done it this way before. All I’m saying, all I’m asking Canadians to do is to suspend judgment because there's no scientific basis for saying that the data is going to be fundamentally flawed.

No scientific basis in that nobody’s a fortune teller, is that what you’re saying.

I can sit down, and we can work out for you, for any given variable, for any given city, based on various response rates, what happens to the sampling error if the response rate falls. There's a necessary consequence. If the response rate is this, this is the effect. If the response rate is that, this is the effect. That's science. But people saying there is going to be massive under-coverage of certain populations, to such an extent that the data is ... there's nothing in statistical theory that supports that argument. You won't know until it's done.

You’ve said you hope StatsCan will still be the world’s leading statistical agency we’ve collectively built it to be. In the interim, we’ve seen international groups weigh in -- the European statisticians [who criticized the scrapping of the mandatory long-form]

The group you're referring to ... it's the advisory committee to Eurostat. They wrote a general report, and in the context of that report they made a couple of statements regarding Statistics Canada. There were maybe two or three sentences in total about Statistics Canada -- and two of them contained errors of fact.

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