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The National Household Survey data released today for 2011 shows a continued growth in Canada's visible minority population – from 16.2 per cent to 19.1 per cent of the population.

How does that number compare to the portrait of Canada's population produced by the 2006 census? One thing that leaps out of this table is the large percentage increase in the percentage of population reporting Filipino origins – an increase of more than 200,000, or 50.8 per cent. While it is true that the Philippines is now the number one source country for Canadian immigrants, that increase looks a bit high to me. It also looks anomalous to people at Statistics Canada, who note, "This result was not in line with administrative data from the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Canada."

The 110,000 estimated increase in Canada's Chinese population, on the other hand, seems remarkably low, given that Canada welcomes between 25,000 and 30,000 immigrants from China each year. Other puzzling findings include a 12-per-cent decrease in the number of Canadians reporting Japanese ethnic ancestry.

Completion of the National Household Survey was voluntary. A comparison of the 2006 census and the 2011 National Household Survey suggests a person's ethnic and cultural background affected his or her willingness to complete the NHS, calling into question the reliability of NHS results on ethnicity.

This is a problem for advocates of employment equity, the policy that requires the federal government and federally regulated employers to ensure full representation of women, aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities in the workforce.

The census was the only data set that had enough questions on ethnic origin and education, and a big enough sample size, to answer questions such as "how many Aboriginal Canadians have a PhD?" or "how many visible minority Canadians in Halifax have a degree in economics and can speak both French and English?"

This type of information is vital when assessing an employer's progress towards achieving employment equity goals. According to labour lawyer Peter Engelmann, "statistical evidence is a very important component of proving systemic discrimination." An employer can hardly be faulted for not hiring visible minority employees if there are no qualified candidates. Yet if it hires none when statistical data shows there are many visible minority Canadians with appropriate qualifications, questions may be raised.

Yet if the NHS data on ethnicity is not reliable, it will not stand up as evidence in employment equity cases. It cannot be used to introduce facts and evidence into debates about immigration and cultural policy.

This is the brilliance of the government's decision to cancel the long-form census. If the policy community rejects or ignores the NHS data, then it will not have the information it needs to evaluate government policy, and critics of the government will be muted. Yet if the policy community speaks to the NHS data, it lends credibility and legitimacy to the government's decision to set up a voluntary survey.

EDS NOTE: This article originally compared 2006 Census West Asian ethnicity estimates to 2011 NHS West Asian visible minority estimates, and consequently over-estimated the difference between the 2006 and 2011 West Asian population estimates.

Frances Woolley is a professor of economics at Carleton University. You can follow her on Twitter @franceswoolley

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