02/02/2015 11:35 EST | Updated 04/04/2015 05:59 EDT

Census Debate Back In House Of Commons With Duelling Bills

OTTAWA - A pair of duelling bills is putting the debate over the census and the work of Statistics Canada back on the floor of the House of Commons.

A Conservative and a Liberal MP each has a private member's bill going through the legislative process, attempting to address controversies surrounding the census.

Liberal MP Ted Hsu's bill, which would bring back the long-form census and bolster the independence of the chief statistician, is scheduled for a second-reading vote this week.

But it's Conservative MP Joe Preston's bid to remove the threat of jail times on all Statistics Canada surveys, including the mandatory short-form census, that has the greatest likelihood of becoming law.

Some Conservatives began signalling last week in the Commons that they were prepared to support Preston's bill, which won't get its first round of debate until about March.

Preston says his bill is very simple: nobody should be threatened with jail if they don't fill out a survey. The fines attached to those who don't comply with the Statistics Canada requests would remain intact.

"I come from an area where volunteerism is rampant, and it's not hard to get people to do things when they're asked to," said Preston.

"Occasionally somebody wants to stand up and say, 'I'm not doing that.' Well OK. There's other remedies, but the answer here is, we've had a pretty good opportunity to get the information out of people."

Preston's bill would also put an end to the automatic release of personal census data to the public after 92 years. People will have to give their express consent for the future release at the time they fill out the forms.

With the Conservative majority in the House, it's unlikely that Hsu's attempt to reverse the government's 2010 decision to axe the mandatory long-form census will survive the session.

Hsu has offered to accept amendments, such as abandoning a measure that would give the chief statistician ultimate control over the census questions.

Like Preston's, Hsu's bill would also remove the threat of jail times in the Statistics Act.

But Conservatives in the Commons said last week they were opposed to the core principles of the bill.

"The proposed changes to the bill will legally compel Canadians to answer these intrusive questions," said Conservative MP John Carmichael.

"This government has already taken numerous steps to ensure that we collect necessary, reliable data, while reducing the undue burden on Canadians and protecting their privacy."

Many groups including the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, municipalities and religious groups have backed the return of the long-form census, saying the information is needed for important public-policy decision making and civic planning.

The response rate for the 2006 long-form census was 93.5 per cent, compared with 68.6 per cent for the voluntary National Household Survey that replaced it in 2011. Statistics Canada withheld information on thousands of smaller Canadian communities because the information was unreliable.

The census tract of Elgin, in Preston's southwestern Ontario riding, had a non-response rate of 26.1 per cent for the National Household Survey.

Critics say the problems with the data are compounded by the fact that the survey results cannot be compared with the results from the mandatory censuses going back many decades.

Hsu said filling out the census forms is a civic duty, just as Canadians have a duty to pay their income taxes.

"The fight over this bill is a fight over the soul of this country," Hsu told MPs last week.

"It is a fight over whether Canadians should collect information about ourselves so that we may have solid evidence with which to govern ourselves wisely."

Hsu's bill would also put the selection of the chief statistician in the hands of a selection committee. The government would need to consult the leaders of all the parties in the Commons before naming a person to the job.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said the long-form census was cancelled in 2009

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