Census replacement sees low response rates in 12 per cent of communities

OTTAWA – The response rate to Statistics Canada’s replacement for the cancelled long-form census varies wildly from community to community, information released Monday shows.


OTTAWA – The response rate to Statistics Canada’s replacement for the cancelled long-form census varies wildly from community to community, information released Monday shows.

New data on the agency’s website about the contentious national household survey show that the final response rate across the country was 68.6 per cent — down slightly from an estimate made public earlier this month.

But almost 12 per cent of communities had response rates that fall below the optimal 50 per cent level.

Most of those communities with low response rates are small, prompting questions about how reliable the final results will be at a local level.

“The reason we take the census is not to get the data for the whole of Toronto. The point is to get small-area data,” said Ivan Fellegi, the chief statistician until 2008.

“My whole point was, and still is, that some data will be good, some will be bad. We won’t know which is which.”

A solid response rate across the board is essential for gleaning unbiased conclusions from the national household survey. The survey was conducted earlier this year as a replacement for the long-form census that was canned by the federal Conservative government in 2010.

The national household survey is voluntary, unlike the long-form questionnaire, which was mandatory. The questions on both forms are the same, but analysts and even Statistics Canada have voiced concern about whether vulnerable groups would be properly represented in the results, since some groups tend not to respond to voluntary surveys.

In the data posted on Monday, Statscan gives response rates for the first time for the county, provinces and census subdivisions — what most people call municipalities. Statscan gives the raw response rate, and a second response rate that is weighted to take into account a second round of questioning of non-responders conducted by the data-collectors.

The data show that the large urban centres all had relatively high response rates. In census subdivisions with populations over 200,000, the weighted response rates were between 73.5 per cent and 82 per cent. That’s above the national average of 68 per cent and well above the 50-per-cent bar set out by Statistics Canada as optimal.

Toronto, for example, had a weighted response rate of 77.6 per cent.

In communities with populations between 4,700 and 5,300, weighted response rates varied between 57 per cent and 89 per cent.

But in 572 communities out of the 4,949 that were sampled, response rates fell below 50 per cent. Those communities are mainly quite small.

Tilley, Alta., had a weighted response rate of just 37.2 per cent, for instance.

Statisticians expected to see fluctuations in smaller areas and have some strategies to deal with the wide range of results, said Marc Hamel, the census manager at Statistics Canada.

Some of the low response rates have already been dealt with by the weighting process, he said. And if the low response rates are in areas where the 2006 census suggested there is homogeneity, there is little concern about the 2011 data.

As for the areas where low response rates mean analysts can’t draw reliable conclusions, Statscan will likely aggregate them with neighbouring areas to make for fuller data, Hamel said.

At this point, the agency’s officials are still combing through data and it’s too early to say whether some of the local data will have to be left unpublished, he added.

“There’s a lot more work to be done.”

None of this was comforting to Fellegi.

“There is a huge range,” he said after looking at the spreadsheets posted by Statscan. “That says that in some areas, the results will be reasonably good. And in others, they aren’t. That was my point right from the beginning.”

Even if big cities have high response rates, the swings in the data within smaller communities suggest to him that there may well be similar swings within certain groups in urban centres. Good data for the City of Toronto as a whole says little about how the Chinese population is faring, or whether low-income groups in the downtown core have enough daycare facilities.

“We don’t have response rates for vulnerable groups,” he said.

Before it had the 2011 data in hand, Statscan ran simulations of the national household survey for three cities — Toronto, Winnipeg and Bathurst, N.B. The tests pointed to sampling errors for visible minorities, low-income groups and First Nations.

By province and territory, the highest response rate was in the Northwest Territories while the lowest was in Prince Edward Island, but all the provinces measured in a tight range around the national average.

Statscan will start releasing the survey results next May. The survey is a collection of social and economic information that is meant to help communities plan for child care, schooling, family services, housing, infrastructure and skills training.

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Census replacement sees low response rates in 12 per cent of communities

  1. How will the government know how many socks to manufacture without a coercive census?

    • All they need to do to answer that is figure out how many sock puppets they have to replace annually in their caucus. They can take off their shoes to do the math.

      • Sock puppets are more prevalent on the left, what with their Borg like collectivism and all.

        • Can I introduce you to Stephen Harper? You seem to somehow have overlooked our Overlord…

          • Freedom can be scary Keith, but once you get used to it, you may even appreciate it.

          • Freedom under Harper? Surely you jest! Freedom to be spied upon by Vic? Freedom to be arrested by the FBI? Certainly not freedom to speak up against the government without being labelled a traitor. Or arrested without cause.

            Ask a CPC MP how free they are to speak – other than to parrot talking points? Ask a government scientist about censorship.

            Name ONE WAY we are freer now than we were when Harper took office? I know you can’t.

          • 1: The Conservatives repealed Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, which limited free speech.

            2: Western farmers are no longer going to jail for the “crime” of selling their own crops.

            3: The death of the Long Gun Registry.

            Why should government employees be allowed to slag their employer in public?

          • OK; I’ll grant you #1.

            I’d like evidence of farmers being jailed.

            Not sure how the death of the Long Gun Registry makes anyone freer. The Registry never prevented anyone from owning a gun; it just asked them to own up to ownership. No different than registering your car. But I know I’ll never convince the NRA North crowd of anything, so we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that one.

            In the meantime, do you back the government throwing away our sovereignty and allowing foreign agents to kidnap citizens and take them out of the country? And how do you reconcile the “freedom” of cancelling the gun registry and Vic Toews nosing about in your online business without a warrant?

            On the balance of things, I’m in no way convinced the scales are tipping toward “freer”. At best, they haven’t budged.

          • Harper just pardoned the farmers who were jailed:


            The main problem with the LGR is the fact that the legislation allowed for warrant-less searches of law abiding Canadians. This is especially galling when we wouldn’t accept criminals with illegal handguns being treat[ed] this way.

            I’m not sure what “allowing foreign agents to kidnap citizens and take them out of the country” is in reference to.

            Vic’s Law was a hamfisted attempt to codify into law and add oversight to something police are already doing. That said, the measures were far too broad and I let the Conservatives have it broadsides.

            The best thing that can be said about the Conservatives is that they aren’t in my face constantly with new regulations for problems that largely don’t exist.

  2. No surprise here – other than that response rates were actually higher than I would have expected.

    The Tories wanted useless data, as it is a lot easier to sell ideologies when there’s no hard evidence to contradict the verbiage. This may not be as useless as they were hoping, but it’s still not as good as it ought to be to be really useful.

    • You really do underestimate Canadians Keith if you believe that we need the threat of arrest hanging over our heads in order to motivate most of us to fill out a census form. My guess is that a reminder in the form of a phone call to those who haven’t filled out their forms, requesting they do so, will result in even MORE forms being filled out to the SHOCK of you and many others.

      • Statists love coercion.

        • Libertarians love ignorance.

      • The survey is garbage. They spent vast sums to replace the long form census with something that is essentially useless.

        Please show me the masses of people incarcerated for not completing the LFC. This was a solution in search of a problem..

        • The solution was to simply scrap the long form, which could have been done at once, rather than poisoning the well first with a worthless exercise like this.

      • I discovered just how much I underestimated Canadians last election when after years of increasing abuse of Parliament, the laws and the Canadian electorate, Harper & Co. were returned with a majority.

        BTW, if I’m reading the article correctly, those calls were already made: “Statscan gives the raw response rate, and a second response rate that is
        weighted to take into account a second round of questioning of
        non-responders conducted by the data-collectors.” [emphasis added]

        The law was never enforced to its fullest; there was no need to. If the CPC truly feared people would be incarcerated, they could easily have removed that condition. Instead, they launched a deliberate smear campaign aimed at so discrediting the long form census that the response rate would plummet, the data would be invalid, and they could then kill it as a waste of taxpayer money.

        I’m sure they are disappointed that the numbers aren’t as bad as they hoped.

        • You’re right. We let you down. Again. I’m so sorry.

      • Oh, and by the way, their lovely smear job and the “voluntary census” approach caused such confusion that months after the census was supposed to have been completed they were still advertising to remind people that completing the standard census is mandatory.

      • “My guess is that a reminder in the form of a phone call to those who
        haven’t filled out their forms, requesting they do so, will result in
        even MORE forms being filled out to the SHOCK of you and many others.”

        I was among the legions who were angered by Harper’s unilateral decision to destroy the efficacy of the long form census and, for that reason, declined to complete the form even after a follow-up visit by the local census officer. As I told her, the methodology was statistically invalid, hence an utter waste of her time and mine.

  3. Now that they have rendered the process essentially useless, their next step will be simply to eliminate the long form altogether, as a waste of money – which it now is, thanks to their meddling.

    • Like ants, progressives hate freedom.

      • Like morons, Conservatives hate knowledge – esp. if it might make them think.

        • Yeah, because the government knowing how many rooms are in my house is necessary for enlightenment.

          Nyet, comrade.

      • Can you explain how an anonymous census threatens “freedom”, without displaying clinical symptoms of paranoia.

        • How can it be anonymous if the old long form census carried the penalty of law?

          • “Confidential” is the term I should have used. Compliance was mandatory but returns were confidential and StatsCan was world-renowned (before this government eviscerated it) for its methods of generating returns and ensuring confidentiality.

            So, on the evidence of history, you’d be exhibiting symptoms of paranoia to view its data-collection as an intrusion on your “freedom”.

          • Thanks for the diagnosis Doc, but without reliable data, it removes opportunities for the social engineers to nanny us to death. The non-eunuchs among us prefer freedom.

          • And how do these omnipotent “social engineers” usurp your freedom – by sending you thoughts through your tin foil hat?

          • Explaining freedom to a statist is pointless.

          • I can’t say I’ve ever had that difficulty. I’ve never met a “statist”. Not even sure what one looks like. I’m guessing I’d need one of your tin foil hats to even spot one.

  4. They should have just cancelled the long form completely, rather than this half-assed “optional” bullshit.

  5. If the government wants statistical information, it has to do the same private companies do. The truth is that most people don’t like to share private information with anyone. That doesn’t change just because its the government that’s asking. In my opinion, that makes it even worse. The government need not have a personal file abut every citizen. It’s called limited government for a reason…

    One should also not forget that under current law, EVERY survey by Stats Canada is MANDATORY under threat of punishment unless expressly stated otherwise by the government. And some surveys are conducted over several months, meaning you have to undergo several interviews. And each time you have to sit down with a stranger and tell them things you don’t even tell you friends. Do we really live in a free country? Talk about government intrusion and overreach.

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