Everything You Always Wanted To Know About The Census (But Were Afraid To Ask)

The Great Census Crisis of 2010 has its first music video. It’s only a matter of time before angry mobs of statisticians take to the streets holding “I’m with Fellegi signs” and chanting “What do we want? Mandatory long form Census! When do we want? Every 5 years!”. Don’t worry, if you can’t make the rallies, you can always show your support symbolically by wearing a Census-themed pocket protector.

Now, I fully recognize that during the summer the only random sampling Canadians are concerned about involves six packs. So for those of you who haven’t been grabbed by the witty “senseless Census” headlines, I present a summary of what the !%@# is going on.

WHAT EXACTLY IS THIS ALL ABOUT?

Governments have been conducting censuses for thousands of years – and the good ones are never voluntary. As a Charlie Brown Christmas taught us, Mary and Joseph didn’t have much of a choice when it came to being counted.

In Canada, the Census takes place every 5 years. All Canadians get the short form which asks the basic questions – name, age, gender, marital status, language. One in five houses get the long form which asks you about your sexual history, voting habits, and embarrassing High School nicknames. I’m kidding of course, but that’s what the government would have you believe. In reality, it asks questions about everything from your income to your ethnicity to your daily commute. On average, you’ll have to fill out 2 or 3 long forms in your life.

The debate focuses on the long form. Those trying to axe the Census argue these questions are an invasion of privacy. “Why the hell should the government know what time I leave to go to work?” they shout angrily on their twitter accounts and in Toronto Sun editorials.

Well,” the other side argues “so that cities can build roads and public transit to help you get to work on time. Duh.”

The reality is we live in an information age, and long form Census data is a valuable source of information. Governments use it to help plan communities and programs. Hospitals need it to provide the right kind of services and fight pandemics. Researches use it to track demographic trends over time. Masters students, like Stephen Harper, use it to write thesis papers. Think tanks, like the Fraser Institute, use it to prove their kooky right wing theories. And businesses use it all the time – just think of restaurants and grocery stores that sell ethnic foods or cater to specific client demographics.

THE PROBLEM WITH MAKING IT VOLUNTARY

As soon as you make a survey self-selecting (i.e. voluntary), certain types of people are more likely to fill it out. That’s why you really don’t want to put too much stock in the web polls on the Globe & Mail’s website.

Studies in the past have shown low income Canadians, visible minorities, and aboriginals are less likely to fill out voluntary surveys (I might add, these studies could only show this because we have Census data as a point of comparison). So if you’re trying to ensure government programs to help aboriginals are working…and low income aboriginals aren’t filling out the long form…you have a problem.

That’s why the US quickly scrapped plans to use a voluntary census after experimenting with the idea in 2003. Imagine that! Making sure it works first, instead of making the change because of a few angry e-mails.

THE GREAT CENSUS CRISIS OF 2010

Three weeks ago, it was quietly announced that the 2011 long form Census would become voluntary. Instead of being sent to every 5th household, it would be sent to every 3rd household. The cost of this? An extra 30 million dollars.

At first, the government’s response was limited 140 characters – a few tweets exchanged between Tony Clement and angry economists. After all, as Tony has since let it be known, the government that spends millions promoting Canada’s Economic Action Plan doesn’t believe government decisions “need to be shouted from every rooftop”.

I’m sure it never occurred to the man who said “only elites care about prorogation” that anyone would care about something as dull as survey methodology. Hell, Tony didn’t understand it himself and he was the Minister of Industry – how could normal non-elite Canadians be expected to understand the issue, much less care about it?

But slowly, people began taking notice and speaking out against the move.

The former head of StatsCan. The Canadian Medical Association. The Canadian Association of Business Economists. The Canada West Foundation. Municipal governments. Newspaper editorials (including those pro-government coercion communists at the National Post and Calgary Herald). Alex Himelfarb. Don Drummond (who sits on the StatsCan advisory panel which was…never asked for advice on the change). It’s a long list, and you can view it here. And here.

Oh, and all the provinces except Alberta now oppose the move – but even there, the City of Calgary has been critical saying it would “cripple” their decision making ability. And Edmonton Conservative MP James Rajotte (who is now assured of never getting into a Harper Cabinet) has broken ranks, demanding an explanation from Clement.

Faced with this backlash, the empire struck back this week. After all, the party which sends Happy Hanukkah cards to swing voters feels you have a right to your privacy. First, there was the Star Wars themed press release, and accusations that Census officials would break down your door at 10 pm while you were “trying to read” (reading? That sounds awfully elitist to me). Then, the Toronto Sun wrote an editorial comparing the long form Census to communism (you know who else conducted a Census? Hitler!).

Maxime Bernier has emerged as the government’s point man on this, which is understandable – if there’s anyone who understands how easy it is for confidential information to leak out, it’s Max. Bernier has laid out the government’s position which is, in short, that it’s wrong to “coerce” Canadians into filling out “intrusive” questions, under the threat of imprisonment.

LOOKING AT THE GOVERNMENT’S ARGUMENT

The problem with this argument, is that it’s inconsistent with the government’s actions.

If there are specific questions they feel are intrusive, they can be removed. Personally, I don’t find the Census any less intrusive than an income tax form, and data is only reported in averages and totals – there’s no way anyone anywhere will know what I wrote on my Census form.

If they don’t see any value in the long form, then they should axe it altogether and save the money.

If they feel it’s “coercive” to force Canadians to fill out a form, then why are they still being coerced into completing the short form? And why are farmers being coerced into filling out an equally intrusive agricultural long form? Furthermore, does the “tough on crime” party actually believe that threatening to put people in jail for breaking the law amounts to “coercion”? Oh, and I should add that no one has ever gone to jail in Canada for not filling out their Census form. Just thought I’d mention that.

In short, Clement has come up with a more expensive and less effective alternative.

Now, in fairness, the government has also claimed there’s a groundswell of Canadians who feel the Census is intrusive. And, if voters did feel this way, there might be an argument to make for changing it. I’d argue the benefits of the Census still justify it (I mean, who likes paying taxes or being called for jury duty), but it would be a fair argument.

Maxime Bernier claims “thousands of e-mails” were sent to him complaining about the long form Census in 2006. Perhaps, but we have no proof of this. I guess it’s possible Bernier misplaced them. What we do have proof from is 22 “expressions of concern” sent to StatsCan during the 2006 Census process, and 3 complaints to the privacy commissioner over the past decade. At the same time, the privacy commissioner has raised concerns about other programs which the government shows no interest in scrapping.

Still, the government’s decision appears to have found some support. Tony Clement has personally thanked 10 people by name on Twitter for their words of encouragement. By the way, Tony Clement has 3500 followers on Twitter.

WHAT NOW?

The government appears unlikely to back down and there’s no indication this issue has captivated the hearts and minds of Canadians.

Still, the Industry Committee will look into this. The head of StatsCan has resigned in protest. And groups opposed to the change will continue to raise a little hell.

So like it or not, expect a lot more news on the Census for the rest of this summer.

Posted on by CalgaryGrit in Featured Posts, Federal Politics

About CalgaryGrit

A former Calgary Liberal, now living in Toronto. My writings on politics can be found at www.calgarygrit.ca and online at the National Post.

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