Skip to main content

Munir Sheikh resigned as Chief Statistician of Canada over the elimination of the compulsory long-form census in 2010.Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

Bill C-626, a private member's bill that would restore the mandatory long-form census and shield the Chief Statistician of Canada from political interference, has no chance of becoming law. It was introduced by a Liberal MP, Ted Hsu, and has limited support in Parliament. Even more foreboding, its adoption would require the Harper government to do something it loathes: admit an error.

But an error it was – and a now well-documented one – for the government to eliminate the mandatory long-form census in 2010 and replace it with the voluntary National Household Survey.

The government claimed the compulsory form was an unwarranted intrusion into Canadians' privacy. It was a bizarre and unsupported explanation. Statistics Canada warned from the get-go that replacing the long form with a voluntary questionnaire, even one containing the same questions, would undermine the quality of the data. The chief statistician, Munir Sheikh, resigned over the issue.

The warnings were prophetic. The compulsory long-form census in 2006 had a 93.5 per cent response rate. The voluntary one in 2011 had a 68.6 per cent response rate, even though more surveys were sent to more homes. When the 2011 data were released, they came with prominent warnings about contamination due to "higher non-response error." Information gathered about more than one quarter of all Canadian communities wasn't released because too few people in those places filled out the voluntary form. Aboriginal communities were particularly underrepresented.

Think-tanks, economists, scientists and academics in Canada and around the world have dismissed the 2011 data as fatally flawed. It can't be compared in a meaningful way with the 2006 data, because they were gathered using different methodologies. Vital research projects on issues like income, unemployment and poverty that require long-term data have been compromised. And Statistics Canada can't provide an accurate picture of how Canadians are faring, relative to 2006, since the 2008 economic crash.

Statisticians are statisticians so we don't have to be. If they say they need accurate, regular, comparable census, then that's what they should get from the government. Mr. Hsu's bill may be doomed, but it will go down fighting to reverse a decision that has harmed the country in tangible ways.