Mandatory Response

Lorne Gunter’s article on today’s release of short form Census data is so bad that it necessitates a response. Point-by-point:

So the 2011 census results are being released today, or at least some results are. Is anyone else as surprised as I am that there is any data to announce? I mean in the summer of 2010, you would have thought the statistical world was coming to an end and taking much of the intellectual foundation of modern civilization with it just because the Harper government had decided to make the long-form census voluntary rather than mandatory.

To start off, the population data being released today is based on the short form Census, which remains mandatory (as does the farming Census). Why? Because there’s nothing wrong with a little state-enforced coercion.

Experts were recruited from the United States to tell the Toronto Star that the Tories move would “lower the quality and raise the cost of information” gathered by StatsCan.

The funny thing about experts is they’re often right. While I’m sure there were some American experts telling this to the Toronto Star (after all, the US quickly scrapped the idea of going the voluntary route after a disastrous trial), there were also experts of the Canadian variety, including the two most recent heads of Stats Canada, Alex Himelfarb, Don Drummond, 100-some organizations, and basically everyone besides Tony Clement. Oh, and the Toronto Star was joined by the pinkos at the National Post and Calgary Herald, among others, in decrying the demise of the Census.

It was Canadians’ “civic duty” to comply with government demands for information about ethnicity, education level, sources of income, types of housing, number and ages of children and their activities, sexual orientation, family relationships, divisions of household labour, recreation and so on.

Some of the above information is still mandatory – the short form, for example, asks for the names and ages of your children so that nefarious governments can build schools near them.

Sources of income is also asked on another mandatory form we’ll all be filling out in the coming months.

On the other hand, if you were sceptical about government’s ability to solve big problems, no matter how accurate the inputs it uses to analyse the sources and solutions, you tended to think a voluntary census would be just as useful as a mandatory one, and far less destructive of individual rights in a democracy.

OK, let’s say you hate big government and believe we’d be better off in a state of anarchy. If I’d lived under an Alberta PC government my entire life like Mr. Gunter, I’d be skeptical about government ever being a source of good too.

But the thing is, the long form Census is also used by hospitals to offer services and fight pandemics. 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

But, really, are the figures produced by having StatsCan select 18.8% of homes based on pure statistical theory going to be so much more useful in setting public policy than the figures from 23.1% of self-selecting, voluntary homes?


I don’t want to turn this post into a statistics webinar, and I don’t need to, because Gunter answers the question himself earlier in the paragraph when he mentions how aboriginals and immigrants are less likely to complete the Census. Also, there are studies on this topic (warning: these studies are by experts).

Besides, I have my doubts about how untainted data from the mandatory census was anyway. When I wrote about this issue two years ago, I received a handful of messages from former census planners telling me that it was routine practice at StatsCan to send long forms to the same households census after census. If a household had shown itself willing to fill out a long form before, it was likely to receive another the next time.

This is just factually inaccurate. I worked as a Census Rep in 2001, and every fifth household got the long form Census. So if house 2 got the long-form, houses 4, 6, 8, and 10 wouldn’t, and house 12 would. Lather, rinse, repeat. Even if StatsCan wanted to employ faulty methodology, there’s no way they could.

And my favourite: The Tories’ move was “enormously destructive” of morale at Statistics Canada. Huh!? How could that possibly matter?

Well, having competent employees resign on principle, and having others demoralized isn’t good for any organization. I mean, just imagine how demoralized reporters like Mr. Gunter would be if newspapers started publishing factually inaccurate information. I mean, the entire industry would…well…never mind

Posted on by CalgaryGrit in Federal Politics

About CalgaryGrit

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

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