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

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

"In light of today’s media coverage…"

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This morning, Tony Clement gives an in depth Q & A in the Globe, where he talks about the relationship between StatsCan and the government, their role in the Census changes, and his relationship with chief statistician Munir Sheikh.

Clement ends the Q & A by assuring us that both him and Mr. Sheikh will release statements today in support of the changes:

Q: Ok. What is the point of the statement tomorrow? Why more statements?

A: I think Munir wants to assure Canadians that Statscan is going to do its job — and [explain] the nature of what that job is — and then I will want to assure Canadians that we have confidence in Statscan — that it can do its job.

And now

Head of StatsCan mulls future over census crisis

OTTAWA – The head of Statistics Canada says he’s “reflecting” on his position at the agency, the latest twist in the crisis over the government’s decision to scrub the mandatory long-form census.

Munir Sheikh issued a terse email to all agency employees today cancelling a planned staff meeting and saying he would comment soon — sparking speculation from insiders that he might resign.


“In light of today’s media coverage, I am cancelling the scheduled Town Hall meeting,” wrote Sheikh, a respected economist with service in both Liberal and Conservative governments.

“I am reflecting on my position and that of the agency and will get back to you soon.”

UPDATE – The Head of StatsCan has resigned in protest, saying the voluntary Census will not work. But hey, Tony knows best…

On the list of things I never thought I’d write on this blog…

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A group of Canadians sing in defence of the mandatory long form Census.

Clement to Farmers: Prepare to be Coerced

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Farmers still face mandatory agricultural census

Canadian farmers will still be required to fill out a questionnaire about their farming methods, even though the federal government is scrapping the mandatory long-form personal census because it says it is too intrusive.

In conjunction with the regular census, Statistics Canada also surveys farmers across the country, asking detailed questions about crops and farming techniques.

For example, farmers are asked about the area of land fertilized with manure, whether that manure was spread on the soil, injected into it, or fell randomly from a cow. [ed note: speaking of random sampling…]

CBC News has learned that this survey of farms remains mandatory, although the national long-form household census is being replaced with a voluntary version in 2011.

UPDATE – Clement was on The House yesterday, and he defended the farm Census:

In the radio interview, Clement did not address the concern that the change will cost more money as the new voluntary survey will be sent to more households than before. But he did explain why the mandatory long-form agricultural census was not scrapped.

Clement says the agricultural census is used for valuable measures “that will help farmers,” adding, “The argument obviously to farming associations and to farmers is, ‘You fill out the form, it’ll help the government help you in your farming activities.'”

He went on to say that the farm Census is the Minister of Agriculture’s decision – so any farmers who feel coerced, can take up their grievances with Gerry Ritz.

The Fraser Institute: Truthiness Over Fact Based Research

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Warren Kinsella defends Tony Clement, and a National Post editorial rips into the Tories:

This is profoundly undignified governance. If, as it seems, the government cannot defend changing the census on any logical, resonant or particularly urgent grounds, it should abandon the undertaking until it’s prepared to do so.

My world is upside down! Luckily, the Fraser Institute is here to restore the natural order of things into place:

The chief economist of the Fraser Institute supports the Conservative government’s decision to scrap the long-form mandatory census, saying voluntary surveys will yield enough accurate information about the country and critics saying otherwise are “vested interest groups.”

The Fraser Institute uses long-form data in its school report card rankings, Mr. Veldhuis said, but he believes the short-form census — which will remain mandatory — the voluntary census and other polling, market research and voluntary surveys conducted by private companies will provide more than enough data on Canadians.

The think-tank recently conducted a survey asking people about their tax returns, he said, and they used short-form census data to ensure they had even geographical distribution across Canada. When asked how they would ensure even representation across different income and ethnic groups on such surveys without reliable long-form data, Veldhuis questioned why those differences would matter.

This is what should be worrying average Canadians — this information is used by central planners to plan how to tinker with the lives of Canadians,” he said of the ways in which census data is used.

Now, I could try to discredit Veldhuis – it certainly strikes me as odd that he doesn’t think one’s income would impact their opinions on tax returns. But no, I’ll leave it to Tony Clement to attack him.

Instead, I ran a search of articles on the Fraser Institute’s website for the word “Census”. I got 313 responses. Here are some highlights from from articles that came up on the first search page:

1. Is Toronto in decline? Compares income numbers for Toronto from the 2001 and 2006 Census (long form question!). Also looks at Torontonians’ employment sectors (long form question!).

2. Is there Really a Looming Labour Shortage in Canada and, if there is, can Increased Immigration Fill the Gap? Looks at Census data to see role of immigrants (long form question!) in the Canadian labour force (long form question!).

3. BC’s Agricultural Land Reserve a costly failure responsible for the most expensive housing costs in North America. Cites Census data showing what percentage of income (long form question!) is spent on housing (long form question!) for different age groups.

4. To Fix Health Care, Follow the Money. Looks at detailed wage data (long form question!) by employment (long form data!).

As the call for state sanctioned coercion grows…

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Via Aaron Wherry, a non-random sampling of opposition to the government’s plan to defile the Census:

To those who oppose the government’s changes to the census you can now add the Statistical Society of Canada, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the Canadian Marketing Association, the Canadian Federation of Francophone and Acadian Communities, the Executive Council of the Canadian Economics Association, the director of the Prentice Institute at the University of Lethbridge, the senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Canadian Institute of Planners, the Canadian Association for Business Economics, and the editorial boards of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, Calgary Herald, Winnipeg Free Press and Globe and Mail.

They join the co-chairman of the Canada Census Committee, Ancestry.ca, city planners in Calgary and Red Deer, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the former head of Statistics Canada, and the editorial boards of the Toronto Star, Montreal Gazette, Edmonton Journal and Victoria Times-Colonist.

And hot off the presses, the Association of Municipalities of Ontario has sent Clement an open letter decrying the move. Also, Pundits Guide talks about how the Census is used, and Susan Delacourt finds it a wee bit odd that a political party which probably knows your voting record, ethnicity, and favourite TV show has issues with Stats Canada collecting Census information. Colby Cosh does link to one of the few supporters of the government’s decision…and promptly rips him a new one.

Meanwhile, Tony Clement has yet to offer up an explanation over 140 characters for his decision, focusing instead on more important issues.

Grab Your Pitchforks and Sampling Methodology Textbooks

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Further to my post over the weekend, people are starting to take note of self-selection-gate. Yeah, I know it’s just because Helena Guergis hasn’t said anything lately but still, it’s nice to see a mind numbingly boring issue that actually matters get some ink.

Below is a non-random sample of what people are saying:

“Abolishing this reliable source of useful information is little more than official vandalism.”
Montreal Gazette

“Before the federal government embarrasses itself further, it should turn back this loopy ruling.”
Edmonton Journal

“The government’s latest move to curtail the census is just another example of ideology trumping common sense.”
Toronto Star

The outrageous decision by the federal government to eliminate the long form of the census questionnaire must be reversed immediately.”
Calgary Herald

“The findings from the census data influence everything from government spending priorities to political representation, both federally and provincially.”
Victoria Times Colonist

Sending it out to more people doesn’t solve the problem. The problem is that on a voluntary survey, people respond who feel like responding. The most vulnerable groups are the least likely to respond. So if you’re interested in data about aboriginal people, if you’re interested in data about recently arrived immigrants, if you’re interested about the poor, the disadvantaged … those are the kind of data that will be threatened.”
Ivan Fellegi, former Chief Statistician at Statistics Canada

I’m just flabbergasted by the fact that they are taking the greatest source of information for the history of the country away from us.
Gordon Watts, an amateur genealogist and co-chairman of the Canada Census Committee

As a practising economist, the census is the single most important piece of information we get. It’s absolutely crucial from a public policy point of view.”
Craig Alexander, chief economist at Toronto-Dominion Bank and president of the Canadian Association of Business Economists

“If response rates vary with the income and education levels, then you won’t have a random sample of income and education levels. There is a rather large amount of evidence in the sampling design literature documenting the fact that people with lower levels of education and income have lower response rates, and so these groups will be systematically under-sampled.”
Stephen Gordon, professor of economics at l’Université Laval

The long form is the only national source of information on aboriginal educational achievement. Without the census long form there will be no information about whether aboriginal education results are improving and no data with which objectively to assess policy alternatives.
Social scientist Michael Mendelson

As the organization that represents Canada’s academic research community, we are 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.”
Canadian Association of University Teachers executive director James Turk

Without robust Census data, it is difficult for local governments, health districts and other community service providers to respond effectively to shifting patterns of need or introduce changes – including cuts – that do the least harm or provide the greatest value for money. Indeed, it is the local level that is most hampered by this federal decision. The issue raised by cutting the Census long-form questionnaire is not just about having good information; it’s about having relevant tools for democracy.”
Armine Yalnizyan, Senior Economist Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

Municipalities use the census like a GPS to navigate on-the-ground changes in our communities – to see where we need better bus service, to build affordable housing, or set up support programs for new Canadians. There’s a real concern that these changes are going to make it harder for us to meet the needs of Canadians – we need to know the federal government isn’t going to let that happen.”
Brock Carlton, CEO Federation of Canadian Municipalities

“We’re not happy. Nobody on either board is happy.” Paul Jacobson, board member of Toronto and Canadian Associations of Business Economists

Hat tips…and more on this – Wherry, Selley, Tribe

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world…among those who felt like it

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I know this isn’t a big issue. I don’t expect facebook groups and protests in the streets over it. But, as someone who worked on the Census in the past, this really grates me:

Former StatsCan head slams census decision by Tories

OTTAWA – The former chief statistician of Canada says he would have quit his job if the Conservative government had tried to axe the long census form, as they’re doing now.

Ivan Fellegi, a veteran public servant who spent 51 years at Statistics Canada before retiring in 2008, says he’s alarmed by the decision to replace the long census form with a voluntary survey next year.

He joins a chorus of groups, including the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the Canadian Council on Social Development and others who rely on the detailed data to make major public policy decisions.

“It would have been a heck of a lot better if this long-form census was cancelled because at least we would have saved $100 million — that would have had a rationale,” Fellegi said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

“To come out with something (voluntary) that has uncertain quality, and certainly for some groups it will be unpublishable quality, is not something that I can understand.”

The mandatory short census, with its basic questions on the ages and sexes of people in a household remains unchanged. But one-third of Canadians, up from one-fifth, will now receive a voluntary “national household survey” with detailed questions on ethnicity, education and income similar to those on the long census.

The cost of the change could reach $30 million, says Statistics Canada: $5 million for the additional mailout, and $25 million in case there is a major problem in getting people to respond.

The problem is that once you make the form voluntary, the sample becomes self-selecting, losing its randomness and, by consequence, its representativeness. The bottom line is that certain types of people will be more likely to fill out their form, skewing the results.

You’ll get far more accurate data from 1/5 of all households than you will from the 1/3 of all households that bother to complete their form. It’s the same reason why you get better data from a scientific telephone poll of 1,000 Canadians, than you do from the 10,000 people who vote on the Globe and Mail’s web poll.

Census data is used for everything from municipal governments deciding where to build schools, to entrepreneurs deciding where to open up new restaurants. Making the long form voluntary will compromise the data used to make thousands of public and private sector decisions.

Yeah, I know data collection isn’t sexy. But it’s important. This decision needs to be reviewed.

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