Feb
09

Canada must bring back crucial long-form census

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On Wednesday evening, Conservative MPs passed up the chance to correct a serious error their government made almost five years ago when it eliminated the mandatory long-form census.

All but one of them voted against Bill C-626, a bill that would bring back the long-form census and strengthen the independence of Canada’s chief statistician. Michael Chong was the lone Conservative to vote for the legislation introduced by Liberal MP Ted Hsu.

The decision to stick with such a wrong-headed move defies reason. The replacement voluntary National Household Survey has been a deep disappointment, transforming a once highly trusted and reliable source of vital information into one of questionable accuracy.

Ever since Statistics Canada started releasing the results of its 2011 National Household Survey, there have been valid concerns that the data does not paint an accurate picture of the Canadian population.

This unreliability is due to the poor response rate for the voluntary survey.  In 2006, 94 per cent of Canadians who received the mandatory long-form census completed it. But in 2011, just 69 per cent of Canadians filled out the voluntary survey. The response rate did not even come close, and the quality of data reflects it.

According to Statistics Canada, higher response rates lead to more reliable data. For communities of less than 25,000 people, the results were even less reliable, and Statistics Canada withheld the data that did not meet its reporting standards. As a result, more than 1,100 small municipalities across the country were not included — about one quarter of all census subdivisions.  Data for another 686 communities were not released for confidentiality or other reasons.

With so many small communities across the province, P.E.I. was hit especially hard. Almost a third of all Island communities were left out of Statistics Canada’s results, including Alberton, Murray River, Murray Harbour, Abram’s Village, North Rustico, Tyne Valley, Miscouche, and half the First Nations communities. In the end, more than 20 per cent of Islanders were not represented at all.

But even in the face of this dismal failure, the Conservative government refuses to listen. Calls are coming from across the country to reinstate the mandatory long-form census in time for 2016.

Why does it matter? The Prime Minister himself recently said, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” Provincial and municipal governments, volunteer groups and charities, business leaders and researchers, all need complete and reliable information in order to make informed decisions.

For example, in May 2014, the former premier of New Brunswick lamented that the loss of the long-form census made it hard to track the outcomes of the province’s poverty program. When you do not know where the people are, it is hard to know where what services are needed and where.

Where do you build the hospital? The school? Seniors’ housing? Expand your business? Offer literacy programs? Plan the bus route? The long form census is a basic source of information to answer questions like these. It provides invaluable data and information that affects the lives of all Canadians. We all need for this information to be as trustworthy as possible.

Even Statistics Canada admits their results are off — they have placed disclaimers in survey publications that warn users about the unreliability of some data. What’s worse is that there are long-term implications to continuing on this same track: the inaccuracies will only get worse. The former Chief Statistician of Canada Munir Sheikh, who resigned over the voluntary survey issue, said in the Globe and Mail in 2013: “The more important issue of replacing the census with the NHS is the potential for producing a downward spiral in the quality of social and household data over time. For a statistical agency that ranks among the best in the world, this should be a cause for concern.”

That is why we need to bring back the mandatory long-form census in time for 2016. We simply cannot afford to lose this objective and dependable information.

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