10/06/2011 04:26 EDT | Updated 12/06/2011 05:12 EST

Candian Census: Report Commissioned By Statistics Canada Recommends Sticking With Traditional Census In 2016

Flickr: Enokson

OTTAWA - There's not nearly enough time for the federal government to embark on a newfangled census for 2016 or even 2021 in some cases, says a study commissioned by Statistics Canada.

The report says the only real choice for 2016 is some variation on the traditional census that's already in place.

The study by statistician Don Royce was commissioned after the Conservative government abruptly axed the mandatory long-form census last year and replaced it with a voluntary survey without consultation or comprehensive field testing.

The Tories killed the long-form and replaced it with the voluntary National Household Survey, saying people should not be threatened with fines or jail time for refusing to answer detailed personal questions.

Many ideas have been floated in the media and in political circles on options for overhauling the census process.

One suggestion was to adopt a national repository of citizen data. Scandinavian countries do this through central population registers.

Royce, a Statistics Canada adviser, looked at that option as well as a number of others based on examples from around the world.

He said it could take decades before Canada could completely replace its census with a population register that includes data on topics ranging from dwellings and employment to education and income. Establishing such a system would cost much more than a census and people would have to support the idea of having all their data stored in a central place.

"The major cost and privacy implications of these developments make it appear unlikely that they would occur in time for the 2021 census," Royce wrote. "Because of this, I recommend that the approach not be pursued for 2021."

The United States has its own way of collecting population data, with a general short census every ten years and continuous surveying of a percentage of the population on more detailed questions. Both questionnaires are mandatory. France has a similar continuous census system.

Canada could move towards this model, Royce said, but it realistically couldn't be implemented until 2021 and the only real benefit would be that the data would be more timely.

"Although Statistics Canada could benefit from the experiences of the United States and France, it would likely take at least 10 years for such a program and would require a significant long-term commitment of resources," the report said.

Just about the only changes that could be made to the census by 2016 would juggle the components that already exist — the short census and the voluntary long form. And Royce says the decision on how to adjust the balance of mandatory and voluntary questions should be based on how reliable this year's data is.

Although the statistics agency recently reported a 69.3 per cent response rate on the survey, it has not yet determined the quality of the information. Certain groups of people might be less inclined to fill out the forms, creating a bias in the results.

"Statistics Canada will be in a better position ... to assess whether proceeding with a voluntary survey vehicle in 2016 is a desirable option," Royce said.

One other recommendation is that the government take steps to see how it can use other administrative data — such as tax returns — to help verify census data and keep the quality high.

Many other countries are currently looking at options for their censuses, including the U.K, the U.S. and Australia. The British government announced last year it would move towards using more administrative data, but gave its census bureau a decade to research the issue.