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john ibbitson

Munir Sheikh's testimony before the Commons industry committee reminded us of something that too many forget: He did not resign as deputy minister responsible for Statistics Canada for the wrong reason; he resigned for the right reason.

Journalism sometimes distorts through conflation. So while the initial stories concerning Mr. Sheikh's departure correctly explained what caused the first deputy minister to resign on a question of principle, as days passed, a crucial distinction became blurred.

The impression gained ground that Mr. Sheikh quit because the Conservative government decided to scrap the mandatory long-form version of the 2011 census, replacing it with a voluntary survey. That's not true.

It is true that Mr. Sheikh advised the government that scrapping the mandatory census would lead to less accurate results.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper took that advice, rejected it and ordered a voluntary survey. As a public servant, Mr. Sheikh was obliged to carry out that instruction. If cabinet wants to undermine the integrity of the census, then that's the right of cabinet. It is the professional duty of the public service to carry out the directions of the government of the day, whatever its members might think of those directions.

Mr. Sheikh only resigned when Industry Minister Tony Clement claimed something he should never have claimed. In a July 16 story on The Globe and Mail's front page, Mr. Clement stated in an interview that Statistics Canada had assured him a voluntary survey, sent to a larger group of people, would yield satisfactory results.

"I asked [Statistics Canada]specifically, 'Are you confident you can do your job?'" he told Steven Chase. "They said 'If you do these extra things: the extra advertising and the extra sample size, then yes, we can do our job.' "

That could not be true: if people who are poorer or less educated are not filling out a census because they don't understand its importance, increasing the number of people receiving the form won't help one whit. Either Mr. Sheikh did not give that assurance, or he gave it knowing it to be false. Rather than permit the latter impression to take hold, damaging both his integrity and that of Statistics Canada, he resigned.

"The fact that in the media and in the public that there was this perception that Statistics Canada was supporting a decision that no statistician would, it really casts doubt on the integrity of that agency, and I as head of that agency cannot survive in that job," Mr. Sheikh told the committee.

It is one thing to quit your job because you don't agree with the boss. It is something quite different to quit your job rather than see the integrity of the people you lead compromised. There aren't many of us who would do such a thing. But Munir Sheikh would, and did.

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