The Census Returns!

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Naavdeep Bains Jean Yves DuclosHere’s what I wrote about the Census back in 2010:

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.

Here’s what I wrote about it a year and a half ago:

I’ve never been of the opinion that Stephen Harper is a monster who has destroyed Canada beyond recognition. Even on issues where we disagree – the gun registry, climate change, Quebec as a nation – I understand where he’s coming from. However, of everything Harper has done, his decision to scrap the long form census remains the thing that boils my blood. Here was the party who sends Happy Hanukkah cards to swing voters calling the census too “intrusive”. It wasn’t an assault on the welfare state or big government, it was an assault on reason. It showed that Harper offered nothing more than government by truthiness.

And that, is why I’ll be taking a break from blogging for the next bit to help defeat him.

So it kind of goes without saying that I am elated by today’s announcement that the mandatory long-form census is coming back.

10 Years of Blogging

Posted on by CalgaryGrit in Featured Posts, Federal Politics | 8 Comments
Happy Trails

Happy Trails

Back when I first sat down to rant about politics on May 15th 2004, I never expected I’d still be doing this over 3,000 posts later. The blog has outlasted 3 Liberal leaders, been through 4 federal elections, and documented my involvement on a handful of losing leadership campaigns. During that time, Bart Ramson turned into Dan Arnold, I moved to Edmonton, finished school, and became a “Toronto Grit”. Shortly thereafter, Naheed Nenshi became mayor of Calgary and Rob Ford became mayor of Toronto. Go figure.

Nenshi and Ford have provided me with bountiful amounts of blogging material, but they have not been alone. There was the Michael Ignatieff experiment, on which so much virtual ink was spilled. There was the coalition crisis, which gripped the nation. There was the rise of the Wildrose Party, which led to the rarest of things – an exciting Alberta election. There was the orange wave. And, through it all, there was still time to poke fun at Politicians in Cowboy hatsand leather vests.

Another source for much blog content has been Justin Trudeau, but he is also the reason content has been, and will continue to be, scarce here. I’ve recently started working for the Liberal Party which, needless to say, limits what I’m able to write about. And really, what’s the point of blogging if I don’t have Rob Anders to kick around anymore.

You may still find the occasional retrospective or Pierre Poilievre rant, but this site will be taking a breather from deeper political analysis, at least until after the next election.

So a big thank you to everyone for reading over the years. I’ve always been in awe of the high caliber of discussion in the comments section of this site, and have appreciated the e-mails. As vain as it is to count clicks, the fact that I knew people were reading certainly motivated me to keep at it for a decade. So, to everyone, thank you.

I leave you with a list of 10 of my favourite posts from over the years. These aren’t necessarily the most viewed or the best posts – just 10 that I had a lot of fun writing.

1. Follow the Leader: I only include this post as a humbling reminder about how unpredictable politics can be, and how wrong I’ve been on many occasions. Just one year before Paul Martin’s resignation I provided odds on 13 possible Liberal leadership contenders without listing Stephane Dion, Bob Rae, or Gerard Kennedy. I do mention Michael Ignatieff, but only in what may have been the most awesomely off-the-mark sentence in the history of this blog – and I quote – “This week, we saw Peter C. Newman toot Michael Ignatieff’s name which is interesting because that’s about as serious a suggestion as Justin Trudeau”. Heh.

2. Greatest Prime Minister: In a March Madness style contest, blog readers voted for Wilfrid Laurier as Canada’s Greatest Prime Minister. This begat a series of other contests including “Best Premier”, “Best Prime Minister We Never Had”, “Biggest Election”, and, coming this summer, “Best Minister of Natural Resources”.

3. The Race for Stornoway: 2006 was really the heyday for political blogging. From the “Draft Paul Hellyer” movement, to candidate interviews, to the blogging room at the convention itself, blogging was as close to “cool” as it would ever be.

4. A Beginner’s Guide to Alberta Politics: For some reason, I seemed to blog a lot more about Alberta politics after I left Alberta.

5. Christmas LettersElizabeth May, Jack Layton, Michael Ignatieff, Stephen Harper. People, myself included, take politics way too seriously sometimes. So it’s good to have some fun with it.

PS. Ed Broadbent.

6. Leadership Power Rankings (here, here, and here). The wonderful thing about politics is how unpredictable, complicated, and human it is. That’s why I love the challenge of trying to quantify it.

7. Moments of Decade: Hopefully I’m blogging again by 2020, because this is an exercise I’d dearly love to repeat. Readers nominated and voted on the top political moments of the decade, with the Alliance-PC merger topping the list. It wasn’t as exciting as the coalition crisis or the Belinda Stronach Chuck Cadman confidence vote insanity, but it set the stage for the rise of Stephen Harper.

8. On October 6th vote for proper scaling of the Y-Axis. Vote Liberal. Tim Hudak math burn!

9. What’s the Matter with Calgary? Having lived in both Calgary and Toronto, I’ve always been absolutely fascinated by the Nenshi-Ford dichotomy. Elected a week apart, these men are opposites with so much in common, who both shattered their cities’ stereotypes. When I first moved to Toronto, a lot of lefties would shake their head and “tsk tsk” when I said I was from Calgary. Not any more.

10. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Census (But Were Afraid to Ask): I’ve never been of the opinion that Stephen Harper is a monster who has destroyed Canada beyond recognition. Even on issues where we disagree – the gun registry, climate change, Quebec as a nation – I understand where he’s coming from. However, of everything Harper has done, his decision to scrap the long form census remains the thing that boils my blood. Here was the party who sends Happy Hanukkah cards to swing voters calling the census too “intrusive”. It wasn’t an assault on the welfare state or big government, it was an assault on reason. It showed that Harper offered nothing more than government by truthiness.

And that, is why I’ll be taking a break from blogging for the next bit to help defeat him.

Stephen Harper Finds Science on the Road to Damascus

Posted on by CalgaryGrit in Federal Politics | 11 Comments

Here’s Stephen Harper doing his best to stay out of the Enbridge pipeline debate – the biggest (non-soccer) controversy in Canada these days:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is defending the independence of the environmental review process underway for Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline, telling reporters in Vancouver the project will be evaluated scientifically and a green light to proceed would not be based on politics.

Decisions on these kinds of projects are made through an independent evaluation conducted by scientists into the economic costs and risks that are associated with the project. And that’s how we conduct our business,” Harper said.

“The only way that governments can handle controversial projects of this manner is to ensure that things are evaluated on an independent basis scientifically and not simply on political criteria,” the prime minister added.

While this is a perfectly reasonable position for Harper to take, it’s also unexpected. After all, the Stephen Harper Amish Drinking Game has “science” in the centre square – it’s simply not a word that ever crosses his lips.

Of course, Harper’s conversion to science does seem to have more to do with convenience than faith when you consider his government came to power thanks to a GST cut economists everywhere hated. It’s the same government that killed the long-form Census over howls of protests from every single expert (other than noted censologist Lorne Gunter) – then cut Statistics Canada’s budget to rub salt in the wound. His Minister of Science doesn’t believe in evolution. Don’t even bother bringing up safe injection sites, the fisheries act, or climate change. It’s no wonder one of the world’s leading scientific journals has demanded that Harper “set scientists free“.

So while I welcome Harper’s newfound love of science, I’ll remain a skeptic until I see more supporting evidence he has changed his ways.

Mandatory Response

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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

That Pesky Census Issue

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Yeah, yeah, I know it’s basically a dead issue at this point but, via Wherry, a comprehensive list of what that long form census data is used for:

More than 50 federal government agencies and departments rely on longform census data on ethnic origins, visible minorities, citizenship and immigration for planning and policies, according to a newly released internal report.

In the documents, Statistics Canada says more than 700 different clients bought reports or data based on the 2006 census, including 297 government bodies from all levels, 232 businesses, 66 non-profit organizations, 54 health and social service agencies and 62 educational institutions.


The Department of Finance reported using long-form data to track Canadian migration patterns during economic changes. Health Canada employs it to assess well-being in first nations communities, while the Public Health Agency relies on this information to target services to clusters of immigrants or particular ethnic groups. The Canada Student Loan Program uses this census data for demographic analysis of post-secondary enrolment, and the Department of Justice uses it to tailor studies on elder abuse to different ethnic populations.

Maybe my vision is clouded because I have a poster of Gauss in my apartment and bell curves on my pyjamas, but I maintain this has been one of the most needlessly destructive decisions of the Harper government during their time in office.

Issue Management

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In all the pages and pages of Census e-mails and documents released Tuesday, the excerpt above is probably the most telling. Just 2 days before the Census changes were made public, an internal Communications Plan was circulated proclaiming “These changes will not have a negative impact on the quality of the Census. Response rates and data quality will be comparable to previous censuses.”

In the margin was a lone voice of reason – “Really? Won’t some stakeholders argue the opposition?”.

I’d say that’s the understatement of the year.

This document reveals so much about what went wrong for the government and how one of the unlikeliest fiascos in Canadian political history was conceived. Just two days before the move was announced, they solicited “initial comments” on the plan…and it occurred to the government some people might oppose it.

Presumably this “grid on reactions” was heavy on passive aggressive tweeting.

Most alarming was the party line – that the response rate would be comparable and these changes would not have any negative impact on the quality of the data. This, despite warnings to the contrary from Statistics Canada three months earlier:

In short, Clement had been warned by the experts but decided to forge ahead. Rather than mount a reasoned defense of these changes, his strategy was to hope no one paid attention – after all, the Queen was in town, the World Cup was in full swing, and it was summertime! And really, who enjoys talking about statistics in the summertime? (besides me)

So Clement’s office employed a “communications strategy” which removed all mentions of their involvement in this decision, in the hopes they wouldn’t have to do any communicating:

They were not prepared, and it shows in the aftermath. Three days after the change was announced, Clement’s Communications Director e-mailed StatsCan asking if any other G8 countries used voluntary censuses. This is a fact so basic you’d need it for any sort of communications strategy – clearly, there was no expectation they’d actually have to defend the move.

Two weeks later, his office was asking questions about what this change meant when it came to releasing data 92 years later (as is done for Census data) – to me, this isn’t so much a communications problem, as a sign they hadn’t at all considered the ramifications of their actions.

Clement himself had his facts wrong on his first public statement about the changes (on Twitter, 3 days later), and he did not issue a real defence until 9 days after the change was announced, when he first mentioned the “coercion” argument (on Twitter). He answered questions for the first time two days later – again on Twitter, and again it showed he did not fully understand the issue.

At this point, the government was still hoping the issue would die. Sure, statisticians were angry and there had been newspaper editorials but the story was just too boring to last longer than a week or two. After all, it wasn’t like Helena Guergis was involved in it.

But the story didn’t die. So sometime around July 15th, the government decided to fight back. Clement’s office asked StatsCan for information about “Jedi responses” and prosecutions (yes, 3 weeks into this story, they still weren’t aware no one has ever gone to jail over not filling out a Census form). Three days later, Dmitri Soudas sent out a letter on the topic. The first mention of the PMO in any of the released documents falls on this same weekend, so it seems likely this was when they first started taking it seriously (how could they not after watching Clement flail around?). That was also when Maxime Bernier started pontificating, either by coincidence or PMO design.

Clement also began doing more interviews on the topic.

In retrospect, he should have stuck to Twitter.

Despite knowing very well that StatsCan had spoken against the change (and had begun saying things in e-mails like “with the utmost respect, the answer you provided is factually incorrect“), Clement made it sound like everything was hunky dory at StatsCan.

This, despite the Head Statistician making it perfectly clear he was not cool with this. Notice how he suggests editing the following statement:

To this:

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Clement kept up the idea that StatsCan supported the move. At McGill. In a Globe & Mail interview. His office kept pushing for Sheikh to validate the government’s decision – something they had made it clear they could not do. As StatsCan e-mails show, they believed Clement had “decided to put the ball in [their] court“.

So on July 21st, Munir Sheikh resigned. By putting the ball in Sheikh’s court, Clement turned a bad news story into the Great Census Crisis of 2010.

And now, thanks to these documents, the story has morphed into one of whether or not Tony Clement lied. Generally speaking, stories about lies and cover ups are easier for the general public to digest than ones on survey sample methodology.

This can all be traced back to that first “won’t some stakeholders argue the opposite” comment I posted off the top. Simply put, Clement’s office didn’t understand what they were doing and didn’t expect anyone to care.

As a result, we’re now into week 7 of a story that simply refuses to die. So if Tony Clement feels lonely, he really has no one to blame but himself.

For background on Census issue, you can read “Everything You Always Wanted To Know About The Census (But Were Afraid To Ask)

7 Weeks Later, Tony Clement Springs Into Action

Posted on by CalgaryGrit in Federal Politics | Leave a comment

Actually, his proposed changes are rather meek, designed only to avoid a court challenge:

Stung by francophone anger, the Harper government is adding questions on French and English skills to the obligatory short-form 2011 census.

It’s a bid to quell the linguistic minority’s fears that scrapping a longer mandatory survey will make it harder to measure their presence in Canada.

These questions were part of the 40-page long-form census the Conservatives are making voluntary over the objections of a broad range of economists, statisticians, provincial governments and researchers who warn it will undermine the reliability of Statistics Canada’s data.

The decision came the same day a francophone appeal of the government’s decision to abandon the obligatory long-form census scored a modest victory. A Federal Court judge agreed to expedite the French-Canadian group’s application for an injunction against Ottawa’s census changes.

In the same breath, however, Industry Minister Tony Clement also announced the Tories plan to chip away even further at the coercions put in place to convince Canadians to fill out Statistics Canada census forms and surveys.

He said the Tories will bring in legislation this fall to remove jail time as a possible penalty for refusing to fill out any and all surveys. This includes the still mandatory short-form census, which until now was composed of about eight questions, as well as all other surveys conducted by Statistics Canada.

This begs two questions:

1. With the Census having gone to print on Monday, what will the additional cost of this change be?

2. With the threat of jail time gone, why not make the long form mandatory? I thought the coercion of jail time was the entire rationale for this change?

Tony Clement: Non-mandatory with the truth

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Tony Clement, on July 16th:

“I asked [Statistics Canada] specifically, ‘Are you confident you can do your job?’ They said ‘If you do these extra things: the extra advertising and the extra sample size, then yes, we can do our job.’ ”


Mr. Clement said the medical journal and other critics should trust Statistics Canada.

“I feel I’ve relied on the experts I should rely on – which is Statistics Canada. If I can rely on their expertise, then these groups should as well.”

But here’s what the experts were saying four months earlier:

On a voluntary Census we can get up to a 65-70% response rate, which is still not an acceptable outcome for a census (although it is for some social surveys of a recuring nature) and will require a substantial amount of additional funding.

Being Tony Clement

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Tony Clement, explaining the government’s census logic:

“Yeah, there are groups that are upset” about the government’s decision, Clement told reporters.

“Hey, listen, they had a good deal going,” he added. “They got good, quality data and the government of Canada was the heavy.”

Realizing fewer people will fill out a voluntary form, the government will send it to twice as many households, Clement said. He said businesses or others who don’t think the data is good enough can pay to get their own surveys done.

So, to summarize:

1. Cities, hospitals, businesses, and a slew of other Canadian groups used to get “good, quality data” to help them make decisions, plan programs, and offer services to Canadians. This was a bad thing.

2. Given Clement’s use of the past tense, he concedes they will no longer get “good, quality data”.

3. The government used to pay for this freeloading, which was unfair.

4. The government will now pay an extra $30 million under Clement’s new plan.

Government by Truthiness

Posted on by CalgaryGrit in Federal Politics | Leave a comment

It’s no wonder the Conservatives don’t see the value of having accurate Census data, when they’re going to disregard statistics completely:

OTTAWA — Canada needs to spend more money building prisons because of violent criminals and a rise in unreported crimes, Treasury Board President Stockwell Day said Tuesday.

“We’re very concerned . . . about the increase in the amount of unreported crimes that surveys clearly show are happening,” Day said at a news conference. “People simply aren’t reporting the same way they used to.”

Now, to be fair to Stock, he does have a point. A lot of crimes go unreported. And while this prompted a slew of Twitter jokes about “unreported crimes” (“murse snatchings“, “wearing white socks with sandals“, “Nickelback“), a lot of unreported crimes are serious.

But…here’s the deal. There’s no indication that unreported crimes are increasing – quite simply, unreported crimes have been a fact of life since the dawn of time 4,000 years ago. And even if unreported crimes are increasing, I’m not sure how this government plans to get the unreported criminals into their new prisons. (Jeff has one solution)

I know 38% of politicians do it, but you can’t just make up statistics to prove your point.

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