Commentary | Fooling around with the census

StatsCan work modifications will hurt marginalized

In the coming year, the Canadian census will change dramatically. Until next year, the census will comprise a short-form survey given to 80 per cent of the population and a long-form survey distributed to 20 per cent, both of them mandatory. Starting in 2011, as per controversial changes decided on by the Harper government, the census will take a new direction.

With the upcoming census, the mandatory long-form will disappear, replaced by a voluntary long survey sent to one in three households. The short form will be sent to all Canadians and will remain compulsory. The census plays a pivotal role in allotting funding to various sectors of the economy, minority groups, and educational establishments, an effort that a voluntary census cannot effectively aid.

Justifying this decision, Erik Waddell, a spokesperson for Industry Minister Tony Clement commented that the redesign was “made to reasonably limit what many Canadians felt was an intrusion of their personal privacy.” With the ostensible goal of looking out for Canadian citizens’ best interest, the government is forfeiting crucial information collected through the census. With just seven questions on the mandatory short-form dealing with such broad topics as age and household occupants, the survey leaves out the people who benefit most from a collection of statistical information: minorities lacking appropriate funding. “We acknowledge that we might not get the same level of detail [as in previous years],” Rosemary Bender, Statistics Canada’s assistant chief statistician, said in an interview with the CBC. With less data collected, how will the government bolster those communities who need the census to help get their voices heard?
This is part of a move to consolidate government control over the census. Bender claimed that “Statistics Canada’s role is to execute the decision made [by the government],” despite the comments by Munir Sheikh, former chief statistician of StatsCan, who resigned following the Conservatives’ decision. Sheikh said during a parliamentary hearing this summer that “the fact that in the media and in the public, there was this perception that Statistics Canada was supporting a decision that no statistician would, it really casts doubt on the integrity of that agency, and I as head of that agency cannot survive in that job.”

Though they scrapped the obligatory long-form census for the general public, Conservatives have retained the mandatory long-form agricultural census, sent to all Canadian farmers. “If you’re sitting and trying to put together policy and direction for where you want policy to go,” Roy Bonnett, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, said to the CBC, “you need to have that kind of [information] in place.”

Although the long-form survey was allegedly too intrusive for the average citizen, demanding the details of a farmer’s work appears both legitimate and necessary. Where information on minorities such as education, mode of transportation, or even place of dwelling, once asked by the mandatory long-form, proves useless to the Canadian government’s economic agenda, a farmer’s crops and techniques furthers Canada’s economic growth, the Conservatives would say. Constituting 8.3 per cent of Canada’s GDP and employing 13.1 per cent of the population, the agricultural sector may seem more important then the protection of minority rights.

Abandoning all hope of statistical security, the defiant Harper government will be left with a skewed portrayal of the population. Through voluntary polls on schooling and transportation, ethnicity and employment, we may ask what the population really looks like. In truth, however, the Conservatives’ guess will be as good as ours.

Ian Sandler is a U1 Anthropology student. You can write him at ian.sandler@mail.mcgill.ca.


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