The long and short of the census debate

In July, I contacted Kitchener Centre M.P. Stephen Woodworth expressing my concerns about the eliminating the use of the long form in the upcoming census. I indicated that I fully supported the position of local groups working to make our community better who believe the data collected is critical to making informed decisions.

About a week later, I got a detailed response that I sought permission to post here and that has now been granted, here it is followed by my response.

Thank you for you for taking the time to write with your concerns about the National Housing Survey. There appears to be some misinformation circulating about this issue.

The 2011 Census remains mandatory for each household to complete in order to give an accurate count of the number of people living in Canada. It asks for address and phone number, number of residents, ages, sex, language spoken, marital status, and can the information given be released to the public in 92 years.

The 2006 mandatory long form census was a 40 page questionnaire that asked some very intrusive questions such as how much you earned from your job and investments, how much time was spent in the last week doing unpaid jobs such as washing your car and cleaning your house. Is your house owned or rented and how much your mortgage or rent is. It also asks where your parents were born and what ethnic group you belong to. You are asked how many hours you worked in the week prior, or if you were unemployed, have you looked for work in the past four weeks. If you were working, who did you work for, and were you paid a salary or commission and what did you do. They also invite you, in order to save your time, to give them permission to look at your income tax files. This is just a sampling of the questions asked and it was mandatory under threat of fine or jail to complete this form for each person in the household.

I don’t believe it would be out of line to comment that some people would complete this form with less than accurate information, and if that is the case, the information is skewed to begin with. I understand, for example, that 21,000 Canadian in 2006 registered Jedi Knight as their religion.

The 2011 National Housing Survey, I believe, will ask for the same information but on a voluntary basis.

There have been concerns raised over the privacy of this information and we have every reason to believe that Statistics Canada safeguards this information – but what about before the information gets to its final destination. In some parts of Canada, StatsCan representatives, including locally recruited temporary workers, usually fill out the long-form census for the respondents by interviewing them and filling in the responses. This need to provide assistance in poorly educated, immigrant, and Aboriginal communities to complete a mandatory long-form census in effect requires respondents to divulge their most personal information to some of their neighbours. Perhaps, if some of people outraged over this change were placed in this position, some of that outrage would be replaced with empathy. These very people are those it seems most unfair to prosecute for failing to complete the survey.

Much has been made of there not being any consultation on the change to a voluntary National Housing Survey rather than the mandatory long form census. Perhaps, had we been in government long enough before the last census we could have added the question: Do you agree that the long form census should remain mandatory? Unfortunately that was not the case and so the government has decided to send out almost double the amount of surveys, stressing the importance of them being completed in order to give as accurate a picture as possible and leave it up to the Canadians to do what is right. I have every faith that we will have as accurate a picture as we would under a threat.

Ultimately, the dialogue over how much information about, and control over, citizens should be granted to any government centres on distinguishing between what power government genuinely needs to fulfil its function as distinct from what agenda any one group or another thinks it might be nice or helpful for government to pursue against the wishes of some citizens. Well-intentioned people can disagree over where to draw the line.

Once again, thank you for taking the time to write and I hope you find this information helpful.

Stephen Woodworth
Member of Parliament
Kitchener Centre

Here is my response:

Thank you for the detailed response. I would still prefer that the government maintained the long census form than to eliminate it in favour of a less useful version. The National Housing Survey will not allow for the same richness of data and make comparing data over time based upon past information impossible thus losing our perspective. That is why the head of Statistics Canada resigned. No statistician supports this change. Stats Canada only suggested because it was their responsibility as civil servants to offer this alternative after the government decided against using the long firm. Please listen to the wide range of respected voices speaking out strongly on this issue and notice the absence of credible organizations supporting the change.

I would be happy to post your response on my blog “Perspectives from King & Ottawa” to help you to explain your position if you would like me to. I could do so as a reply to my original post on this issue or give it more prominence by including it in a new post. Naturally, I’d also include my response above.


James Howe

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