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Editorials The lost long-form census means shakier insight into aboriginal issues

The Statistics Canada offices at Tunney's Pasture in Ottawa.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canada's public policy concerning aboriginal peoples continues to be perplexed, and the country needs more rather than less significant and reliable information about their lives and circumstances; many communities are afflicted by social problems. Consequently, the loss of the mandatory long-form census is acutely felt in Statistics Canada's National Household Survey on First Nations, Métis and Inuit, which was released on Wednesday.

Several passages in the NHS allude to the difficulties of assembling solid statistics about aboriginals. The understandable ambivalence of some members of aboriginal communities about Canadian institutions can lead to a reluctance to answer census questions; a legal requirement was a real help. As Statistics Canada rightly says, "the characteristics of those who choose to participate" may – indeed probably do – differ from those who refuse, which undermines the information value of the survey as a whole.

Obstacles already existed. In 2006, 22 Indian reserves and settlements were "incompletely enumerated." That figure rose to 36 in 2011, out of a total of 863 communities. The causes vary, but in some cases a particular First Nation government does not allow the survey to proceed, or indeed to get started; in others, forest fires and other natural events get in the way. In previous censuses, participation had risen; that progress has now been reversed. Small communities differ from each other, which makes the quantity of response even more valuable. By all accounts, StatsCan makes strenuous efforts to collect this data, but the end of the long-form has made an uphill struggle steeper.

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Aboriginal leaders should be eager for more data collection, to help overcome their communities' problems. John Richards of the School of Public Policy at Simon Fraser University rightly points out the pressing need for more statistics on aboriginal education – a matter on which the federal Conservatives are trying to achieve serious reform, notwithstanding their eccentric aversion to a more thorough census.

This year's NHS, notwithstanding its gaps, confirms some disturbing patterns, most conspicuously, the high rate of First Nations children who are in foster care. Nearly half of all the Canadian children (14 years old or less) who are in foster care are aboriginals. These and other social ills prove the need for better, fuller statistics about Canada's aboriginal peoples – not shakier numbers.

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