09/19/2016 01:30 EDT | Updated 09/19/2016 04:41 EDT

Wayne Smith, Former StatsCan Chief, Questions Liberal Pledge Of More Independence

OTTAWA — The country's former chief statistician is casting doubt on the Liberal government's promised commitments to Statistics Canada based on its handling of an issue that forced his sudden departure last week.

Wayne Smith quit Friday after losing a battle over Statistics Canada involvement in a five-year-old — and controversial — central IT department, Shared Services Canada. Smith told Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last month he would resign if the issue wasn't resolved to his liking.

The government took Smith up on his offer, staying silent until last week when he received a letter from the clerk of the Privy Council, the highest-ranking official in the federal civil service, that accepted his resignation.

wayne smith

Canada's former chief statistician Wayne Smith is shown in this file image at his office at Stats Canada in Ottawa Feb. 11, 2011. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

He also received a letter from Trudeau himself that said little about the IT dispute — only that the government was committed to giving Statistics Canada its independence, Smith said.

The controversy has Smith wondering whether the Liberals will follow through on a campaign pledge to give Statistics Canada greater independence from political intervention.

He also questioned why the Liberals chose his successor after they argued two years ago for an outside body to recommend a nominee for chief statistician.

'I'm more than a bit concerned'

"Given the Shared Services Canada issue and given their method of appointment of my successor, I'm more than a bit concerned about just how sincere this commitment is."

The issue of independence comes down to the credibility of Statistics Canada and the information it provides to voters and governments, Smith said.

"When we publish data, people have to believe it and they won't believe it if external forces are able to influence or prevent Statistics Canada from carrying out its mission."

NDP blasts 'clearly broken promise'

During question period Monday, NDP MP Kennedy Stewart assailed the government for what he called a "clearly broken promise."

The government responded by thanking Smith for his service and touting the return of the mandatory long-form census and its response rate of nearly 98 per cent, the highest rate the agency has ever recorded.

"Our government remains committed to reinforcing the independence of Stats Canada. We are working on that," said Greg Fergus, parliamentary secretary to Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains.

Fergus didn't directly mention Shared Services Canada.

Other departments frustrated

Shared Services Canada has come under persistent fire from departments frustrated with having to hand over control of their systems to the central IT agency, complaining about delays in projects and a lack of understanding of individual department's digital needs.

Shared Services head Ron Parker defended his agency's work, saying it had worked hard to meet Statistics Canada's IT needs. He said there were no operational and capacity issues when he met with Smith in April.

The IT agency is in the middle of expanding computing capacity for the national statistics office, he added.

Parker also said the government will know next year when it will realize the savings promised to taxpayers by creating Shared Services Canada following a review of its plan to modernize federal digital infrastructure.

The long-term plan doesn't envision anyone opting out of the shared IT arrangement, he told a briefing in Ottawa.

"There never has been a substantive discussion about whether the points I'm raising are valid or not valid."

Smith said federal officials told him the centralized IT program could crumble if Statistics Canada left because it would embolden other frustrated departments to demand independence from the arrangement.

"There never has been a substantive discussion about whether the points I'm raising are valid or not valid," he said.

"It has really been about the consequences for Shared Services Canada if Statistics Canada was pulled out of that arrangement."

Smith said the statistics office's data centre in Ottawa has experienced numerous outages because Shared Services Canada has not invested in infrastructure. A new system to disseminate findings from the 2016 census fell so far behind schedule that Statistics Canada had to come up with a workaround for the upcoming releases, he noted.

Parker said Shared Services Canada had servers in Gatineau, Que., ready to handle that system, but Statistics Canada raised concerns about security and reliability. The servers should be in place and the system operational by the end of the year.

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