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article imageCanadian statisticians mourn loss of Canada's long form census

By Stephanie Dearing     Oct 21, 2010 in Politics
On the first ever World Statistics Day, some Canadian statisticians held a mock funeral to protest the Canadian government's decision to get rid of the mandatory long form census.
Statisticians might be considered a geeky bunch, crunching reams of numbers in order to spit out digestible chunks of meaningful analysis used by marketers, business people, governments and non-profit organizations alike.
But there is no doubt national statistics have informed many government planning decisions for various for diverse populations and needs. The value of information gathering and the people who do the job were honoured on World Statistics Day, October 20th. The day was set aside by the United Nations. "The celebration of the World Statistics Day will acknowledge the service provided by the global statistical system at national and international level, and hope to help strengthen the awareness and trust of the public in official statistics. It serves as an advocacy tool to further support the work of statisticians across different settings, cultures, and domains."
In Canada, the day was marked with celebrations, cake and refreshments, free lectures and a smattering of protest as some statisticians used the day to protest the cancellation of Canada's mandatory long form census. The Harper government announced the decision to get rid of the long form in June. The long form was replaced with the voluntary National Household Survey.
When announcing celebrations for World Statistics Day, the President of the the Statistical Society of Canada, Don McLeish said the decision to end the traditional census had “cast a shadow on this celebration.” The Society said statisticians would "pay attention" to the loss of the long form census through the day.
The controversial decision has resulted in polarized debate in Canada ever since. The debate grew legs when Canada's Chief Statistician, Munir Sheikh resigned over the issue.
Argument for keeping the long form census have taken two main lines. There are those, such as the senior economist for the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), Armine Yalnizyan, who said in a letter to Industry Minister Tony Clements, "... This move will weaken the quality and availability of data that tells us what is happening to employment, immigration, housing, incomes and education – the very issues that beg for the best policy decisions possible as we inch our way through recovery.
The Census long-form questionnaire is a unique tool that affords decision-makers a rich set of facts about Canadians, facts that are as reliable at the census tract or neighbourhood level as the nation-wide level. This is because of its huge sample size and the fact that response is mandatory. The information that the Census long-form generates is invaluable for decision-makers at every level of governance. We are unlikely to get a similarly high quality of information across geographies and sub-groups of the population from the proposed survey."
The other line of argument runs along the theme that the federal government is ignoring what Canadians want. Commentator Dorothy Gosling posted a comment to the Facebook movement, Keep the Long Form Census, saying (sic) "I for one am sick of being railroaded by the Conservatives while they follow an agenda which is harder and harder to understand. Keep the Long Form Census! it is the only record of who we are. Only a minimum number of Canadians were asked to fill out the Long Form the rest of us were sent the short form but they were b...oth mandatory so why shouldn't Canadians know who lives in this great countryl?"
The government of Canada, however, said the mandatory form needed to go, because Canadians were complaining about the intrusiveness of the questions. The Miramichi Times & Transcript spoke with Industry Minister, Tony Clement about the issue last week. Clement said "I think we're actually being fair and reasonable; what we're trying to do is find the right balance. We know that businesses and other organizations want useful data and we are intent on providing that." Clement went on to say "(We are) meeting the concerns of Canadians about privacy and not wanting to be threatened with jail time or massive fines if they don't fill out a form, so I think that's the right balance and the place where we are right now."
Liberal MP Dr. Carolyn Bennett tabled a bill in the House of Commons at the end of September to bring back the long form census minus the mandatory participation.
Some governments have been moving away from collecting data about citizens through the census and have instead been implementing what are called open data systems, which anyone can access. Other governments have what an article posted at Canoe called registry-based systems. "Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark all use registry-based systems to track citizens from birth to death."
In an article published Thursday, the Globe & Mail said the Canadian Liberals were expected to announce Thursday afternoon that, if elected, they too would institute an open data system for Canada.
The debate is far from being resolved, even though the federal government has already revoked the long form census. NDP MP Brian Masse is planning to table a bill in the House of Commons Thursday that would give authority to the Chief Statistician to decide what data should be collected from Canadians, and how the data would be collected, reported the Ottawa Citizen.
More about Long form census, Statistics canada, Statisticians, Census, Data gathering
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