A growing chorus of business groups and economists say the end of the long-form census is harming their decision-making and ability to make recommendations in areas such as where to offer services, locate stores and even determine in what professions to train students.
The Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Canadian Economics Association, Martin Prosperity Institute, Toronto Region Board of Trade, Restaurants Canada and the Canadian Association of Business Economics have all told The Globe and Mail they want a reinstatement of the mandatory long form.
The growing list shows the issue is a mounting concern in Canada's business community. A private member's bill to restore the census, cancelled by the federal government in 2010 in favour of a voluntary household survey, was voted down in Parliament this week. Another bill, scheduled for debate next month, proposes to eliminate jail time for those who don't fill out the census, while the topic may become an election issue this year.
Economists say the voluntary survey – which garnered a lower response rate and risks under-representing some segments of the population – means it's harder to pinpoint trends such as income inequality, immigrant outcomes in the jobs market, labour shortages and demographic shifts. Some businesses say it's become harder to know where to locate stores, tailor marketing and understand local markets.
Robert Fairholm has been an economist for more than 25 years, advising governments, Crown corporations and private-sector companies in areas such as labour market trends and housing demand.
The problems surface when drilling down to specific groups or smaller areas, where the data become "more murky," said Mr. Fairholm, partner at the Milton, Ont.-based Centre for Spatial Economics. It's now more difficult to look at who's entering the labour market and who's exiting in specific occupations, he said. This makes it tougher for provincial governments to determine how to adjust postsecondary education programs.
Under-representation of on-reserve aboriginals is a growing problem, and Mr. Fairholm now struggles to create projections for employment equity groups. Among companies, such as electrical utilities or gas distributors, he says it's harder to give advice on expected demand in sub-provincial areas, needed to determine how to adjust capacity.
"We need good data. It's a multibillion-dollar mistake to go from the good quality long-form census data to a NHS because of the uncertainties and distortions involved … I think of these data as a public good … that provides a benefit to all Canadians, either directly or indirectly," Mr. Fairholm said.
Census data have helped marketers and consumer companies tailor their products to local communities. It helps inform grocers on how to stock shelves, insurers on calculating risks and banks about where to open branches, said Jan Kestle, found and president of Environics Analytics.
Although most firms don't use census data directly, many do indirectly, by purchasing data sets, consulting advice or surveys that themselves were based on the census. The census has long been used as an accurate benchmark to weight all other surveys in Canada.
"The census is the foundation for our being able to build this whole ecosystem of data on top of it," said Ms. Kestle.
"People get excited over Big Data. But you need the census – a very good indicator of what's on the ground – to be able to … bring data back to the real world, and to allow us to benchmark and measure how well we're doing. The impact from the last switch was mitigated by having 2006 census with which to compare things. But as time goes on, "we will all be impacted as we get further away from a full long-form census."
(Not everyone's unhappy with the changes. The Retail Council of Canada says Statscan data "still delivers the information needs of RCC as we monitor trends affecting retail.")
Housing is another sector that has relied, directly or indirectly, on census data to determine neighbourhood characteristics such as income mobility and aging patterns.
Tridel Corp., the largest condo developer in the Greater Toronto Area, relies on the census indirectly because it purchases market data from third-party groups such as Environics. Senior vice-president Jim Ritchie works closely with municipalities and provincial governments, which in turn need detailed census data to create policies on population growth and transit planning.
"I'm a believer that you need reliable information – even though we may not use that information directly, it affects our business," he said, because of the need to understand how neighbourhoods are shifting.
In the tech sector, Piinpoint produces software that helps companies determine where to locate storefronts. It uses census data in its modelling and demographic analytics along with other information sources.
"Reducing the quality of the census data would mean our customers would be forced to make decisions without the best data possible," said Jim Robeson, chief executive and co-founder of the Kitchener, Ont.-based firm, in an e-mail.
The Canadian Council of Chief Executives says it would have "preferred it if the government had opted to stay with the mandatory census in the interests of gathering the most accurate and comprehensive data possible."
The hope is that "the government will consider how best to improve its census methodology in future," said Ross Laver, the council's vice president of policy and communications.
Not everyone believes the long-form census should be resurrected in the same format. One alternative is to add some questions to the new, shorter census, said Bill Robson, president of the C.D. Howe Institute and member of the National Statistics Council.
He has questions on place of birth and education at the top of his list, but says it makes sense to limit response burden and perceived intrusiveness by keeping the census shorter. The decision to add questions should rest on whether the information gained is a genuine public good for all Canadians, rather than benefits to the private sector or certain geographic groups, he said.
Looking ahead, some suggest a compromise by adding questions to the mandatory short-form census. Ian McKinnon, chair of the National Statistics Council, said the chief statistician and Statistics Canada should be free from political interference, tasked with deciding on the best methodology for the collection of accurate information.
In Edmonton, meantime, the city's chief economist, too, is wrestling with the impact. Analysis at the broad city level is intact, as Edmonton conducts its own city census and the NHS data is useful at the aggregate city level. But the switch to the NHS has left a dearth of data on long-term changes at the neighbourhood level and within demographic groups.
"It's very problematic, because we have to make decisions around – you name it – provisions of services: where to build a library, where to build a fire hall … and we're depending on information that's increasingly foggy," said John Rose.
In an era of tighter government budgets and uncertainty from falling oil prices, "once you've made the decision to invest … and you find out the numbers are wrong, how do you unmake them? We want to make sure we get it right in these days where every capital dollar is constrained."