Momentum builds to reinstate the census long form

from Margin Notes University Affairs News Blog by Leo Charbonneau

9 July 2010

Momentum is building against the federal government’s shortsighted decision to eliminate the mandatory long-form census. Thank goodness.

The government quietly announced its decision just before Canada Day and, in the days immediately following, there seemed to be little response. Thankfully, that muted reaction looks to have been more the result of summer torpor than disinterest, for many groups and individuals have now begun to criticize the move.

A little background: the census, administered every five years, has for decades included a detailed long form sent to one in five Canadian households. As with the common short census form that every household receives, filling out this long form was mandatory.

However, with next year’s census, the long form will be replaced by a voluntary “national household survey.” Academics and others fear that its voluntary nature will reduce the response rate and lead to self-selection bias – i.e., the likelihood that certain groups will be less inclined to fill out the survey – skewing the results and lessening their reliability.

Simon Fraser University economics professor Krishna Pendakur is one of many academics to speak out, through an open letter to the government on behalf of the Metropolis Centers of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Diversity, a major research initiative sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

“The long form responses represent our best data on small populations, including ethnic minorities, linguistic communities, immigrant groups and Aboriginal peoples,” writes Dr. Pendakur. He adds that many groups, including historical researchers and genealogists, need public access to this information.

Similarly, Nipissing University geography professor Sean O’Hagan told his local newspaper that he relies heavily on the long census form for his research on migration, adding that he likely would never have taken on his research project if such information wasn’t available through Statistics Canada.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers has also chimed in, saying it is “deeply concerned about the disastrous consequences this will have for the scientific understanding of Canadian society, and for the ability to make informed decisions about social and economic policies.”

And the opposition is not limited to academia: the Globe and Mail reports that business groups are also decrying the changes.

The Toronto Star’s James Travers, meanwhile, in a scathing piece, calls the decision “dead wrong and demonstrably foolish,” while the Globe’s Andre Picard notes that it represents “only the latest of many bad decisions” by this government on how it collects information. Dan Gardner at the Ottawa Citizen calls the move “gratuitous stupidity.”

The decision is apparently in response to opposition from some who argue the personal questions in the long form are an intrusion on privacy. That’s ridiculous. Statistics Canada has always taken the utmost care to safeguard its data and is highly regarded as one of the best statistical agencies in the world.

Some observers, including Mr. Travers, see something more nefarious: a desire by the government to control inconvenient information that conflicts with its policy positions. The point was put succinctly by another commentator in the Globe and Mail:

This is a direct attack on the ability of government to make smart decisions. It is an attack on evidence-based public policy. Moreover, it was a political decision – it came from the minister’s office and does not appear to reflect what Statistics Canada either wants or recommends. Of course, some governments prefer not to have information; all that data and evidence gets in the way of legislation and policies that are ineffective, costly and that reward vested interests (I’m looking at you, tough-on-crime agenda).

If you’re an academic, make your opinion known by sending an e-mail to Industry Minister Tony Clement. Also share your comments below.

Update, July 12, 2010: There is more criticism of the government’s decision in an editorial in the Globe and Mail,  an opinion piece in the Calgary Herald, and in a news story in the Lethbridge Herald (quoting Susan McDaniel, director of the Prentice Institute at the University of Lethbridge).

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