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norman spector

Industry Minister Tony Clement.Adrian Wyld

Tomorrow, MPs will have an opportunity to question Tony Clement about the census; the Minister of Industry will be followed in the hot seat by former Chief Statistician, Munir Sheikh. While the normal partisan histrionics can be expected, only one matter needs to be determined: whether StatsCan is still able to carry out the responsibilities that have been assigned to it by Parliament.

In his written resignation statement, Mr. Sheikh affirmed:

"I want to take this opportunity to comment on a technical statistical issue which has become the subject of media discussion. This relates to the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census.

It can not.

Under the circumstances, I have tendered my resignation to the Prime Minister."

However, as far as I can tell, Mr. Clement never made that claim. Moreover, he's acknowledged forthrightly that Statistics Canada's "preferred approach" would have been to keep the mandatory long-form census.

Here's how Mr. Clement explained the decision process to the Star's Bruce Campion-Smith a few days before Mr. Sheikh resigned:

"There are Canadians around this country who were concerned about answering . . . very intrusive questions about their personal lives. So I went to StatsCan. They're the experts. I said to Stats Canada, 'Give us some options. Is there a way that we can have a balance, get the data that everyone hankers for . . . but at the same time do so in a way where people can opt out if they have a conscientious objection'."

"StatsCan gave me three options, each of which they thought would work. I chose one of those options with their recommendation."

He said he asked whether the voluntary survey would produce "robust" data. Stats Canada replied "in no uncertain terms, 'Yes, it would give us the data that everybody hankers for'."

And here's what Mr. Clement said to the Globe and Mail's Steven Chase on the eve of Mr.Sheikh's resignation:

Q: What I don't understand is this: the impression we've got from your comments over the last few days is that Statscan is A-OK with this. That this is a perfectly acceptable substitute for the mandatory long form -- and they signed off on that. That they said this will satisfy everything necessary to produce a statistically valid census that is no different from the last one.

A: Right and I do assert that. When an agency of government reports to its minister and gives that minister options, I am entitled to assume that they are comfortable with those options ...

Q: So you assume that is the case ...

A: I think it is the case. I specifically had that dialogue with them. That if we went to a voluntary census and if we did the measures that they recommended, that we could mitigate and/or eliminate the legitimate concern [about]going from a mandatory to a voluntary census.

And I came away with the belief that we had reached a consensus."

It appears that finance minister Jim Flaherty came away from the cabinet discussion with the same understanding about the viability of a voluntary census. Still, on Tuesday, MPs will need to test the accuracy and veracity of the statements attributed to Mr. Clement.

However, there's one question that will need to be answered by the former Chief Statistician of Canada:

Mr. Sheikh: Ivan Fellegi, your predecessor, said last month that he would have quit if the government had tried to replace the mandatory census with a voluntary one. Yet, when the current government made that decision, you saw no need to resign.

Does this not suggest that, in your professional view, nothing in the government's decision prevented StatsCan from doing its job?