The Harper government has offered a concession on the 2011 census to avoid a backlash from francophones but insists this is not the start of a slow retreat from its divisive decision to scrap a mandatory long-form questionnaire.
Industry Minister Tony Clement announced Wednesday the Conservatives will add two questions probing the languages Canadians speak to the short-form census that all households are obliged to answer.
It's a move to quell fears among Canada's francophone minority that eliminating the once-compulsory long-form census - previously sent to one-third of households - will make it harder to measure their presence.
Mr. Clement's announcement came hours after a Federal Court judge agreed to expedite hearings on a francophone group's bid for an injunction to stop the census changes. This looming linguistic battle with Ottawa had the potential to morph into a political headache for the Tories, who need to boost their appeal in Quebec.
Before Wednesday, the language questions Mr. Clement is adding to the short-form census were going to be asked only in the 40-page long-form survey. This is the questionnaire the Conservatives are making voluntary over the objections of economists, researchers and premiers, who warn that it will undermine the reliability of Statistics Canada data.
The Federation of Francophone and Acadian Communities of Canada, which is now slated to argue its case in Federal Court on Sept. 27, has argued that Ottawa's changes will yield a poorer picture of their presence and undermine the delivery of government services in French. The group declined comment late Wednesday on the new development, saying it had not received "any formal proposal."
Mr. Clement explained the concession - and why he didn't make it earlier - by saying he was acting on "new advice" from the acting chief statistician, Wayne Smith, who replaced Munir Sheikh. Mr. Sheikh quit July 21 after Mr. Clement created the impression the veteran bureaucrat was onside with the decision to abandon a compulsory long-form census.
The Industry Minister's office added that the decision to add the language questions was also made on the advice of the Department of Justice. Justice lawyers are tasked with defending Ottawa on the francophone court challenge and assessing whether it would win or lose the legal battle.
Mr. Clement said adding the language questions ensures Ottawa is "completely consistent with the Official Languages Act" - the law that sets rules for government service delivery in French and English.
In a quirk the Tories haven't fully explained, they're keeping the language questions on the voluntary long-form survey even though they're adding them to the 2011 short-form census. One Clement staffer said it would enhance data collection.
It could also be because the language question changes come late in the census printing schedule. The new voluntary long-form survey was sent to the printer Monday.
Also, Wednesday, Mr. Clement announced the Tories plan to chip away at the coercions in place to make Canadians answer surveys. No Canadian has ever been jailed for balking at answering a Statscan survey.
He said this fall the Tories will bring in legislation to remove jail time as a possible punishment for refusing to complete Statscan surveys, although cash penalties will remain. No Canadian has ever been jailed for refusing to complete a census form.
Mr. Clement rejected the suggestion that eliminating the threat of jail time removes the rationale for eliminating the long-form, saying the lengthy questionnaire and its queries about work, home life, religion and ethnicity are still too prying.
"The basis of our case was twofold. One part was the coercion issue and the second part was the intrusiveness issue - and the intrusiveness issue remains," the minister said in an interview.
Liberal MP Bob Rae accused the Tories of "inventing policy by the seat of their pants" on census changes.
Earlier Wednesday, Mr. Rae held a press conference where he accused Mr. Clement of lying by suggesting earlier that Statscan supported his decision to scrap the census.
Government records released Tuesday show Mr. Clement's office knew Statistics Canada felt a voluntary census would fall short of the mark even as he defended scrapping the mandatory long form by suggesting the agency had embraced the change.
"I think the government has been creepy, dishonest and underhanded. I can't think any other way to describe it," Mr. Rae told a press conference in Ottawa Wednesday.
Mr. Clement's francophone concession has no impact on the government's decision to scrap the mandatory long-form census and make it a voluntary survey. Once a survey is deemed voluntary, refusal to answer it no longer carries threat of fines and penalties.
The new questions that Mr. Clement is adding to the mandatory 2011 short-form census are:
1) Can this person speak English or French well enough to conduct a conversation?
2a) What language does this person speak most often at home?
2b) Does this person speak any other languages on a regular basis at home?