While I normally write about science and society on this blog, I want to take some time to comment on the recent major changes to the 2011 Canadian census. My Canadian readers should have by now received their short form census notification directing them to a URL where a few questions can be answered online or informing them of how a paper form can be requested. Canadians have also now realized that the long form census, which for its entire history has been obligatory, is being administered this year to 1 in 5 households as a voluntary household survey.
This year at the Canadian Sociological Association annual conference in Fredericton, Dr. Monica Boyd, Professor at University of Toronto and Canada Research Chair in Immigration, Inequality, and Public Policy, delivered a lecture about this most significant change to the census. Thoroughly researched and compellingly presented, it has me worried.
Dr. Boyd pointed out that such a major change to the census is unprecedented. Cabinet has the power to determine the contours of the census – but this has always been exercised in developing the questions asked in the census, not its fundamental methodology. As Cabinet discussions are in camera, there was no consultation and no warning regarding these changes.
The voluntary nature of the long form has a profound impact on the quality of data that can be obtained from the census. In fact, Chief Statistician of Statistics Canada Munir Sheikh criticized the changes and resigned over them. There are many consequences that negatively affect Canadians (detailed for example in this open letter from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives). Most close to me is the impact is has on researchers, who use this data extensively in analyzing Canadian society. But Dr. Boyd also pointed out that this affects businesses, who use the data to determine feasible markets; government services that require information about populations and their needs; the government in determining equalization payments; cities, provinces, and school boards; nonprofits in establishing the nature and needs of marginalized populations; and the list goes on. The data is integral to the functioning of our country.
Tony Clement, Minister of Industry who is responsible for Statistics Canada, justified the change by saying that the obligatory nature of the long form census represented an unjust infringement on the privacy rights of Canadians. However, Dr. Boyd pointed out that in 20 years, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada had received but a few handfuls of complaints regarding the census. It does not seem that this concern accurately reflects the views of Canadians.
Why did the Conservative Cabinet decide to change the census? I think there are two reasons:
1. Ideology. Having an obligatory program mandated and financed by the government that asks Canadians to reveal private data, no matter how important it is and how anonymous and confidential the responses, is not consistent with the ideological underpinnings of the Conservative Party
2. With less and less reliable evidence on the nature of the Canadian population, the Conservatives can be less accountable to their needs and make more “executive” decisions.
I’m angered by this unfounded, unhelpful, and unnecessary change to the census. I do not support the move to change the Canadian long form census from obligatory to voluntary. If you are also against the changes to the census, you can:
2. Sign this petition which has over 18000 signatures as of today.
Thank you Dr. Monica Boyd for urging me to think more about the changes to the census.
July 7/2011 Update: According to this CBC news article, census workers are already observing issues in data quality in the voluntary household survey, “raising concerns the data will be even more compromised than originally feared.” We’ll have to wait till the data is released to know for sure just how limited it will be. I continue to urge readers to sign the petition and contact Tony Clement.