OTTAWA — As Justin Trudeau’s new government announced it is bringing back the mandatory long-form census, the Conservative minister who was responsible for its demise said he regretted the decision and wished the Liberals well.
“I think I would have done it differently, looking back on it,” Ontario MP Tony Clement, the former industry minister and possible federal Conservative leadership contender, told The Huffington Post Canada.
“I think we could have had a much wider discussion on how we collect data in our society. What is the best way to do that, that balances privacy with accuracy, and rather than making that one decision [to make the census voluntary].”
Clement said he should have researched more what other countries were doing in terms of collecting information, and if there were different ways to gather the data the federal government wanted.
“I’ll take the blame for that. I should have posed that question six years ago,” he said.
Clement said he hoped Canadians will respond to the reinstated questionnaire. “There were problems with the census but at the same time it is important to have factual information, answers that work, and I hope that this census works well,” he said.
Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains and Families Minister Jean-Yves Duclos in the House of Commons foyer. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)
On Thursday morning, the Liberals’ first policy announcement was to reinstate the mandatory long-form census.
“Today, Canadians are reclaiming their right to accurate and more reliable information,” Navdeep Bains, said the new industry minister, who now runs a portfolio renamed as Innovation, Science and Economic Development. “With the 2016 census of population program, communities will once again have access to quality data they require to make decisions that will truly reflect the needs of the people, the businesses, institutions and organizations.”
In their election platform, the Liberals twice mentioned their commitment to “immediately” restore the mandatory long-form census, identifying affordable housing policy as one particular area that would benefit from better up-to-date data.
“Without accurate and reliable data, Canada’s communities cannot plan ahead,” the Liberals platform stated. “Everything from transit planning to housing strategies to support for new Canadians becomes more difficult.”
The Conservatives eliminated the long-form census in the summer of 2010 calling it an example of government intrusion into citizens’ privacy. The detailed questions relate to family size, immigration status and background, cultural ancestry, languages, education, housing, employment and methods of transportation, for example.
The data were used by different levels of governments, the non-governmental sector, and private industry to help guide decisions on programs such as employment insurance, old age security, public transit, infrastructure projects, social services, and education funding.
The Conservatives, through a cabinet decision, replaced the mandatory form with a voluntary National Household Survey — which cost $22 million more — and led to lower quality and incompatible data. The move was criticized by more than 300 civil society groups and recognized experts. It also led to the resignation of Statistics Canada head Munir Sheikh in protest against the Conservatives’ mischaracterization of his opposition to the changes.
Bains and his colleague Jean-Yves Duclos, the new minister of families, children and social development, refused to tell reporters what penalties would be associated with failing to fill out the mandatory long-form census.
“The law is the law,” said Bains, when pressed repeatedly about it.
That law, the Statistics Act, states that any person who refuses, neglects or falsely answers census questions is guilty of an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a maximum fine of $500 or to a maximum three months jail time, or both.
Tories killed long-form census in 2010
The Huffington Post Canada has learned that the mandatory long-form census will be sent to one in four households — less than the one-third of households that received the National Household Survey in 2011, but more than the one-fifth of households that received the long-form census in 2006.
Assistant Chief Statistician Connie Graziadei said the measure is a precautionary one to try to ensure a higher response rate in case some Canadians still believed the long-form census was still voluntary.
The 2011 National Household Survey had a response rate of approximately 77 per cent, far lower than the 94 per cent response rate for the mandatory long-form census in 2006.
The 2016 census has already been printed and will say “National Household Survey” on it, an official said, but a letter will likely accompany the document outlining its mandatory nature and the importance of filling out the questionnaire.
The questions included in the survey haven’t changed much since 2011 or 2006. They have been posted on Statistics Canada’s website for several months.
The most significant change to the 2016 census is that there is no longer be a question on income, nor will Statistics Canada ask for permission to verify employment income with the Canada Revenue Agency. Statistics Canada will, as it is entitled to do by law, obtain obtain the information from the agency without prior approval from the respondent. An official said the measure was taken to ensure more reliable data.
Several groups including the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, the Canadian Psychological Association, and the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada applauded the Liberal government’s decision to reinstate the long-form census.
The NDP also welcomed the move.
“Reversing the damage done by the previous administration will be a long-term job and today’s announcement is a good first step,” NDP MP Charlie Angus said in a press release.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May congratulated the Liberals and suggested they give Sheikh his old job back.
“Mr. Sheik demonstrated tremendous integrity and courage when he resigned from his position,” May said in a statement. “I encourage the Liberal government to remember Mr. Sheikh’s commitment to his position at Statistics Canada.”
University of British Columbia professor and Liberal advisor Kevin Milligan told HuffPost that Thursday’s announcement was significant because it ensures public policy decisions will have some basis in reason and evidence.
“There was no sensible public policy case for the decision to move away from the mandatory census,” he wrote in an email. “The replacement cost more and was demonstrably lower quality. Attacking this important institution was simply vandalism.”
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