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Children at the Strathcona Community Centre take part in an after school program in Vancouver March 8, 2011. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

Here's a persuasive new way to make Canada seem like a better place – ignorance.

As long as the country lacks good data on poverty, and its associated inequities in health, education and well-being, we're prevented from saying with certainty whose lives are difficult, and where, and most in need of aid.

Researchers at the Mowat Centre, a public-policy institute based at the University of Toronto, recently set out to create a map of what they called the hardest places to live in Canada. Their model was a much-discussed graphic published in the New York Times that vividly depicted the relative inequality of 3,125 counties in the United States, drawing on indicators such as life expectancy, unemployment, education and income.

What they inadvertently discovered was a disturbing inequality between nations: Canada simply doesn't have the data needed to make these kind of community-by-community comparisons. A national discussion is effectively closed before it can even start.

The best source of local information should be the census. But with the politically motivated switch from the mandatory long-form census to the voluntary National Household Survey in 2010, the trustworthiness of national data has declined along with the response rate – from 93.5 per cent to 68.6 per cent, note the Mowat researchers, with the biggest drop-offs occurring in small communities and rural areas.

Relative to U.S. sources of data, Canada also lacks good local information on health, which is not tabulated in the census but collected through the much smaller Canadian Community Health Survey. The think-tank admits to doubts in its ability to assess the relative state of Canadians in different communities on such measures as obesity, mental health, disability and levels of stress. And if you can't figure out where the need is greatest, you can't even start asking why disparities exist, or how to address them.

Better data is badly needed. The mandatory long-form census should be restored. Canadian researchers and governments also need ways to capture more of the health information that now eludes them – possibly through an expanded census form. Knowledge is not a cure-all, but without reliable information about the state of Canadians and their communities, we labour in ignorance. Success stories can't be identified. And problems can't be spotted, let alone solved.

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