The Harper government is pouring cold water on a Conservative MP's suggestion that this year's short-form census might be the last one Canadians are ever required to complete.
The Tories faced a backlash from researchers, economists and business groups in 2010 when they converted the longer, 50-plus-question version of the census to a voluntary survey. The mandatory long form used to go to one-fifth of Canadian households.
All households must still fill out the short-form census, which contains 10 questions seeking basic information from birth dates to languages spoken.
St. Catharines, Ont., Conservative MP Rick Dykstra revived the census controversy on Thursday after he told his local paper that the Conservatives would make the short-form optional, too.
"We've already changed the long-form census so that it is not mandatory, and that is, frankly, the road we are going with the short-form census as well," Mr. Dykstra told The Standard in St. Catharines. "I frankly don't think this is the sort of thing a person should be penalized to do."
Within hours, the Prime Minister's Office overruled Mr. Dykstra, saying the mandatory 10-question survey is not headed for the scrap heap.
"The short-form census will remain as is," PMO spokesman Dimitri Soudas said.
That may not be the end of the matter, however.
Statistics Canada is investigating whether to ditch the mandatory short-form census in favour of alternatives such as data mining, chief statistician Wayne Smith said in a February interview with The Globe and Mail.
It was the Harper government who requested this review, he said.
The Conservatives, who scrapped the mandatory long-form census on the grounds it was wrong to coerce Canadians into answering intrusive questions, has asked Statistics Canada to rethink the way it collects population data, according to Mr. Smith.
Both the 50-question long-form survey – now optional – and the short-form questionnaire that collects basic data are used by researchers, policy makers and economists to get a richly detailed picture of Canada. These users complained bitterly about Ottawa's decision to make the longer survey optional, warning it will erode the quality of data gathered because response rates will fall.
Mr. Smith, who took over from embattled chief statistician Munir Sheikh last summer, has been tasked to study how other countries gather information and report with options that could shape the 2016 census.
Examples range from a register-based census, where governments dip into their records on their citizens, to surveying a different part of the country each year.
"People have suggested that if we could make a register[-based]census work in Canada, we could save buckets of money and avoid annoying a whole bunch of Canadians in asking them to fill out forms," the new chief statistician told The Globe and Mail in February
Register-based surveys – used in parts of Europe – appeal to statisticians because they could pull together all sorts of information. But they could also generate huge privacy concerns.
On Thursday, StatsCan did not provide a deadline for its report, but said its review "to evaluate options for the 2016 census" would be posted on its website when finished.