Long-form census fight in Ottawa — sideshow signifying nothing .. or more serious than some of us thought?

Jul 19th, 2010 | By | Category: Ottawa Scene
 For some reason this patriotic picture pops up when you Google-Image “Statistics Canada.”

For some reason this patriotic picture pops up when you Google-Image “Statistics Canada.”

UPDATED JULY 21 [see below]. My first reaction to the evolving long-form census issue in Canadian federal politics was stark disbelief. Noting how it has progressed hand in hand with the rising heat in this apparently hotter-than-ever-before summer, however, I have come to see it as a rational phenomenon among people suffering from increasing degrees of sunstroke.

The mass media are of course full of other explanations — about why the Harper minority government has decided to replace the 20% compulsory long-form sample in the census with a 30% voluntary long-form sample (I think I’ve got that right), and/or why so many critics of one stripe or another have reacted to this decision with such wild hostility. But in either case only summer sunstroke makes any real sense to me.

I have been an intermittent user of the kind of data collected by the long-form census for several decades. So I have some serious interest in the issue.  And having now heard that some MPs will (probably or perhaps?) be taking off valuable summer recess time to return to Ottawa and discuss the whole thing in greater depth, there are two key questions I would like to see answered.

First — and with particular reference to the people who decided to change things in the first place, I understand that, under the present practice, “anyone who refuses to respond to the [long-form or short-form] census questions can be fined up to $500 or jailed for a maximum of three months.” But how many people actually were fined or jailed for such offences during the last census? For evidence that the actual number involved was small, at most, see the case of “Warren Kinsella, census refusenik.”

There is apparently a deeper history on PM Harper’s (and Warren Kinsella’s) home turf: “Statistics Canada has tried all kinds of ways to publicise and promote Canada's national census, but this is a first. Census Day, 16 May 2006, is coming up fast and, to raise awareness and, hopefully, participation among a demographic group that is notorious for skipping the Census, Canada's national statistics agency is having the Census logo plastered on Alberta beer cans.”

There is apparently a deeper history on PM Harper’s (and Warren Kinsella’s) home turf: “Statistics Canada has tried all kinds of ways to publicise and promote Canada's national census, but this is a first. Census Day, 16 May 2006, is coming up fast and, to raise awareness and, hopefully, participation among a demographic group that is notorious for skipping the Census, Canada's national statistics agency is having the Census logo plastered on Alberta beer cans.”

Second — with particular reference to those who have expressed so much alarm about replacing the 20% compulsory long-form sample in the decennial census with a 30% voluntary long-form sample, just how much less reliable will (or would?) the latter be? Again I don’t myself know the answer. But as someone who has used this kind of data, it would not altogether surprise me to hear, from qualified experts, that the difference between the results gained through the compulsory and voluntary samples will likely be modest.

Needless to say, my own instincts about both questions could be wrong. But if a parliamentary committee is going to dig into the subject, I hope that answering these questions will be its first priority. If my instincts are broadly correct, then it will at least be clear that the long-form census issue in Canadian federal politics is just another symbolic sideshow of limited practical significance. And one of the most distressing features of Canadian federal politics right now is that we have far too many issues of this sort hanging in the Ottawa air.

UPDATE JULY 21: Today Munir Sheikh, the head of Statistics Canada, resigned over this issue.  See:  “Chief statistician resigns over changes to census … Voluntary form is no substitute for a mandatory one, outgoing head of Statistics Canada says.”

Perversely enough, I continue to believe that, at some level of fundamental realism, “the long-form census issue in Canadian federal politics is just another symbolic sideshow of limited practical significance.”

Politics notoriously has a great deal to do with perception, however, and  Mr. Sheikh’s resignation no doubt counts for more than I was anticipating in this context.

I remain sceptical about just how much all this is damaging the Harper Conservatives. Though if the issue continues to develop I of course may have to change my mind here tooAn interesting but inconclusive cross-Canada survey has come out today as well. See “No consensus on census debate: Poll.”

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