Two former heads of Statistics Canada told a Commons committee Tuesday that data collected voluntarily is not as reliable as information collected from people who are required by law to provide it.
Munir Sheikh, who was until last week the country's chief statistician, said he resigned because of the perception filtering through to the public that he approved of the Conservative government's decision to abandon the voluntary long-form of the census.
"The day that I resigned, there were stories in the media, particularly in The Globe and Mail that had a turn headline on page four, that said the chief statistician supports what the government is trying to do," Mr. Sheikh said. (The story, which dealt with provincial criticism of the census change, can be found in full here.)
The government has the right to change the census, he said, but the integrity of Statistics Canada was at stake because the public was being told the agency agreed with changes no credible statistician could condone.
Mr. Sheikh, who appeared at the committee with his lawyer, was overcome with emotion when he read a statement from Alex Himelfarb, the former head of the Privy Council who described him as a man of great integrity.
"This goes to the heart of the agency's integrity," Mr. Sheikh said.
Review the testimony below or here for a mobile-friendly version.
Ivan Fellegi, another former Statscan boss, said any voluntary survey is intrinsically biased and the bias cannot be estimated.
"What makes the bias particularly worrisome in this context," Mr. Fellegi said, "is that most users are not interest in a snapshot, they are interested in the changes since the last time the data was measured."
But, if the data have been collected in different ways in different surveys, they become "unusable," he said.
In addition, he said, it is known that when surveys are voluntary, some geographical regions are under-reported as are some demographic groups including aboriginals, new immigrants, and youth.
Mr. Fellegi said privacy is now and has always been a central concern of the statistics agency. Statistics Canada has even hired security agencies to try to hack into its database - they we're unable to do so.
"There isn't a single case," he said, of information being released from Statistics Canada with an identifier to indicate who submitted it.
Conservatives on the committee pointed out that, between the census years, the agency conducts many voluntary surveys. Are they all biased, they asked.
No, replied Mr. Fellegi, because Statistics Canada has the tremendous advantage of being able to compare them to the data received in the mandatory census.
"If we didn't have the census to compare them against, we would never know the answer" to the question of whether those interim voluntary surveys are biased, he said.
The shape of the 2011 census must be decided in just a few weeks. For that reason, Mr. Fellegi said he supports recommendations of the National Statistics Council, which argues that major changes should wait until the 2016 census.
Industry Minister Tony Clement, whose department oversees the statistics agency, appeared before the committee earlier Tuesday. He spent an hour explaining that his government was trying to strike a balance between the need to obtain census data and the protection of personal information.
Mr. Clement told the Commons industry committee the Conservative government takes full responsibility for its decision to abandon the mandatory nature of the long-form census. It was important, he said, to answer those Canadians "who are concerned with being threatened with prosecution."
Yes, Mr. Clement said, there are groups that want access to the data - banks, businesses, private organizations - "but we do not think that Canadians should be threatened with jail or fines" to reveal this personal information.
To appease concerns about the integrity of data obtained through a voluntary survey, Mr. Clement said he had asked that the sample size be doubled to 4.5 million households.
But opposition members accused the government of "manufacturing a crisis."
When Liberal MP Anthony Rota asked Mr. Clement how many people had been sent to jail for refusing to fill out the census form, the minister did not respond directly.
The government's problem with the mandatory census, he said, is that Canadians are threatened with jail or fines for not answering "intrusive" questions.
Mr. Rota asked why to government didn't simply eliminate the penalty of imprisonment. Mr. Clement replied that making the census mandatory without any sanction "is pretty much an empty threat."
Charlie Angus, an NDP MP, accused the government of deliberately mischaracterizing the nature of the census. The difference between the Conservatives and the opposition parties, he said "is that we expect that an Industry Minister makes his decisions based on fact, not on urban myth."
Mr. Angus said he has checked the records back 40 years and no one has ever gone to jail for refusing to fill in the census. He also took the minister to task for refusing to meet with groups that opposed his government's census proposals.
"Will you admit this was a decision made totally for ideological purposes?" Mr. Angus demanded.
Mr. Clement responded that he regretted Mr. Sheikh's resignation. The chief statistician, the minister said, had been working with the government for months to ensure that the information obtained is "usable and manageable."
But he ducked questions about whether he would be willing to make public the information provided to the government by senior bureaucrats and the statics agency before the decision was taken.
Mike Lake, a Conservative MP from Alberta, said his constituents were "surprised or quite agitated" when he told them they could be jailed for not telling the government how much time they spend with their kids.
Opposition members pointed out that the reason for the surprise might have been that Mr. Lake had to inform people of the law because, in reality, no one has been sent to prison over the census.
Still, Mr. Clement said, Statistics Canada employees have told him "it is part of their repertoire to threaten jail time, to threaten fines."
Some new Canadians, he said, have been reduced to tears and terrified of deportation when they have been told to complete the form.
But Mr. Fellegi said no one should be concerned that the information they provide will be made public and no should worry about going to jail "because it hasn't happened in the history of the country."