Antonia Maioni is president of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.
Another chapter in the discussion of Canada's long-form census closed this week when Bill C-626, a private member's bill to restore the census, introduced by Liberal MP Ted Hsu, was defeated. While this was not a surprise, the outcome remains deeply discouraging.
When the federal government eliminated the mandatory long-form census in 2010, it broke what didn't need fixing. The voluntary National Household Survey that replaced it made matters worse by resigning Canada's most effective means of information gathering to a fate worse than suppertime telephone surveys. Understandably, Canadians have already been hanging up, opting out and moving on.
The price we are paying, however, is substantial – namely, public and corporate decision-making based on inaccurate and incomplete data. The long-form census was and remains critical for evidence-based, people-centred policy-making. The census is about people and plays a central role in building a healthier, safer, more equitable and prosperous Canada.
The data gathered by the long-form census was vital. It enabled governments to better plan programs, such as Employment Insurance, Old Age Security and the Canada Pension Plan, and to target investments – from public transit and transportation infrastructure to health care, social services and education.
It is also a fail-safe way for Canadians to tell and share our stories. Social science researchers, for example, used long-form census data to compare income trends among immigrants and visible minorities, accommodating for place of birth, date of arrival and education level, finding significant gaps between newcomers and second-generation Canadians, and between men and women. Researchers were also able to show complexities, such as how some immigrant groups fare better than others and that men with only high-school education struggle to find well-paying jobs in the knowledge economy.
The resulting portrait of the country may not always be flattering, but knowing the hard (and sometimes surprising) facts about who we really are is the first step in smart policy-making. Tough policy discussions about labour shortfalls, poverty and building the Canada we want can and must still take place. These debates and the decisions they lead to mustn't occur in a vacuum, which is where we are heading now.
What's encouraging is how Canadians have refused to close the book on this issue. A strong and wide-ranging consensus to restore the long-form census prevails among researchers, planners, business groups, bar associations, NGOs and a diverse set of think tanks. Animated by these calls, Parliament has also helped to keep the census debate alive. Prior to Mr. Hsu's bill, the New Democrats introduced Bill C-346, with similar aims, in 2011. But support from all sides of the House is essential. The government's unwillingness to change its position remains disconcerting.
There is ample evidence why the position needs rethinking. The response rate for the mandatory long-form version was 93.5 per cent, whereas the new version, which is shorter, voluntary, more expensive and went to more people, chimed in at 68.6 per cent in 2011, with significantly lower response rates from mid-sized cities, small communities, rural areas, aboriginals, immigrants and recipients of needs-based payments.
The absence of a mandatory long-form census creates growing and troubling evidence-free zones. It allows ideologues of all stripes free rein to define problems and solutions without a clear grasp of the nature of the challenges facing the country, or the likely impact of a range of possible policy options on diverse Canadians. It's like driving blindfolded, and it mustn't continue.
The last long-form census was undertaken in 2006. While it's now likely too late to restore it in time for 2016, its role in ensuring evidence-based decision making and supporting a dynamic knowledge society remains a vital public policy issue. Canadians must continue the conversation through the upcoming federal election cycle and beyond.
Comprehensive data collected reliably over time is essential for ensuring sound, democratic policy-making. It allows us as Canadians to tell our own story, to see clearly who we are, and, ultimately, to decide together who we want to become.