How the census went from a quinquennial chore to a national crisis -

How the census went from a quinquennial chore to a national crisis

No fun with numbers


Rick Eglinton/TORONTO STAR

“Wrong,” Tony Clement typed to an entity calling itself Harbles. “Statisticians can ensure validity w larger sample size.” A week into the Great Census Uprising of 2010, the industry minister had taken to Twitter, as he often otherwise does to detail both his travels and his music tastes, in hopes of making the case for changes to the national head count.

“Wrong,” countered Stephen Gordon, an economist at the University of Laval. “Large samples can’t fix sample selection biases.” Clement tried again, tweeting that “proper weighting” would be used. “Where will the weights come from?” Gordon shot back. “Other voluntary surveys get their weights from the census.” After another exchange of tweets, the minister fell silent for the night.

This was, in its odd way, the defining moment of what has become a profound debate over paperwork and a remarkable outbreak of painstaking seriousness in our political discourse. Where once the census was merely a quinquennial formality, it is now the source of the summer’s pre-eminent political debate, drawing economists, city planners, statisticians, minority groups and religious leaders into a battle that goes to the very purpose and practice of government.

The national census, conducted every 10 years between 1870 and 1951 and every five years since, has recently included two forms: a brief set of basic questions sent to 80 per cent of households and a more detailed long form sent to 20 per cent of homes. In late June, it was quietly announced the long form would no longer be mandatory. Instead, a voluntary survey would be distributed to 33 per cent of Canadian households—the increase apparently meant to offset the fact that a response was no longer required by law. The change made news on June 29 and the next day, Gordon, writing on his economics blog Worthwhile Canadian Initiative, was among the first to proclaim outrage. “It’s not often that sample selection bias becomes an issue of national importance,” he wrote, “but then again, it’s not often that census sampling design is outsourced to drunken monkeys.”

Gordon’s concern was technical, but crucial: response rates to voluntary surveys typically vary among income and education levels, thus skewing the results. Such data can be adjusted, but the usual benchmark upon which that adjustment is based is the census. If its methodolgy is not sound, it’s not reliable, and all the other studies and surveys that depend on it are in trouble too.

From this dilemma followed a storming of the statistical Bastille. Three weeks later, the disgruntled include the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the Canadian Marketing Association, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the Canadian Federation of Francophone and Acadian Communities, the Canadian Medical Association Journal, the Canadian Jewish Congress, and even the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. This week, a number of interested observers—including the chief economist at TD Bank and the presidents of the Canadian Labour Congress, United Way and Toronto Board of Trade—wrote to Clement in hopes of meeting to discuss the “considerable economic and social costs” of his decision.

As varied as the complainants are—so far including government officials in at least three provinces—the complaint is essentially the same: anything that undermines the collection of census data undermines the creation and analysis of public policy and the ability of these groups to serve their various communities. “That’s what the Conservatives’ endgame is here—to permanently hobble the government’s ability to enforce legislation and deliver social programs aimed at our most vulnerable,” Liberal industry critic Marc Garneau said last week, suggesting that the unemployed, women and minorities could be most affected.

The government rejoinder is equally as dramatic: that the census in its previous form represented nothing less than an authoritarian intrusion into the private lives of Canadians.

Among other details, the long form asks how many bedrooms are in each respondent’s dwelling, while the Statistics Act includes the threat of a fine (of up to $500) or imprisonment (for as much as three months) for refusing to fill out the census. “Data is valuable to many,” Clement tweeted to Gordon this week. “But personal questions you would like to force Cdns to answer on pain of jail is just plain wrong.”

Statistics Canada, which the minister has said signed off on the decision, has largely declined to defend the new system. And while the mandatory long form’s prominent supporters are multitudinous, Clement’s public supporters have been few. Libertarians have rallied to the government’s defence, but William Robson, president of the conservative-minded C.D. Howe Institute, has lamented their cause. “For those who want governments to do less but do it better, good information is indispensable,” he recently wrote.

Facing such determined and disparate forces, Clement and the Conservatives have turned aggressive. In a memo to reporters last weekend, the Prime Minister’s Office both mocked the census (noting that 21,000 respondents had identified their religion as “Jedi knight” in 2001, the result of a larger prank by Star Wars fans) and attacked the Liberal opposition. “The Ignatieff Liberals promise to force all Canadians to answer personal and intrusive questions about their private lives under threat of jail, fine, or both,” wrote Dimitri Soudas, the Prime Minister’s director of communications.

Apparently now eager to explain themselves, the Conservatives are demanding—echoing an earlier call by the Liberals—that the industry committee be recalled for summer hearings into the matter. Meanwhile, Maxime Bernier, the disgraced cabinet minister reborn as a crusader for classic conservative ideals, has stepped forward as the government’s primary defender. As industry minister during the last census, he claims to have received thousands of emails complaining about the intrusion (though he admits the emails were all subsequently deleted). He also asserts a fundamental governing philosophy. “As I keep saying, government is already much too big and intrusive, and this decision will restore some balance,” he wrote on his blog.

The necessity of the effort in the first place, of course, remains debatable, and not just for statistical reasons. The new process will cost more than the previous census. The 2001 census generated 52 reported cases of non-compliance (the vast majority apparently resolved without trial). According to Clement, after the long form was sent to 2.5 million households in 2006—when the census was subject to protest because Lockheed Martin, the American arms manufacturer, had provided the necessary software—approximately 60 cases were referred for prosecution. Only half a dozen people are reportedly fined after each census and it’s not clear if anyone has ever been imprisoned. Clement claims the government “received complaints about the long-form census from citizens who felt it was an intrusion of their privacy.” The privacy commissioner, though, says the last two censuses generated a total of three grievances.


How the census went from a quinquennial chore to a national crisis

  1. Nice story, but a bit out of date now. No mention of Sheikh's resignation anywhere.

    • No mention of the 168,000 Canadians that refused to fill out the 2006 long form,
      obviously most of who saw no need to also complain to a government agency.

      • I'm curious wilson, do you really care if the government– in AGGREGATE– knows a) how many bedrooms you have or b) what bracket your income fell into? Because a) so what and b) they know that anyway. Or are you just desperate to toe the Conservative Party line?

  2. Congrats to Harbles, don't let the fame go to your head.

    • Please! Have your people call my people and we'll do lunch. Tuna OK?

      • Yeah, I've always felt bad about horning in. I figured that it would really stick if were someone who has demonstrably taught statistics for a living at universities for 20 years. You did very well to set up that hanging slider.

        • Course, now comes the hard part. In any dynamic duo, somebody has to be the sidekick.

  3. @RJodoin everything is out of date on the internet.

    Good piece, Aaron – a coherent summary of the debate and where everyone stands. Especially for people who've had trouble making sense of the issue, this is a great place to start.

  4. Drunken monkeys, couldn't have said it better myself.

  5. I suggest a compromise, as a way out of this mess.

    Make 2011 a test year. Send the mandatory long form to 20% of households, as usual, but also conduct a test run with a voluntary long form, as the United States did in 2004. Have statisticians apply the proper weightings to the voluntary test set, and then compare the results to the mandatory set. The test results will determine whether the 2016 census can be made voluntary without compromising data reliability.

    This will allow the government to step back gracefully, without abandoning their stated commitment to a voluntary "coercion-free" census. Having an additional "voluntary" data set will also provide Statistics Canada with an abundance of useful data for 2011, which will be very useful for analyses, and which will justify the one-time extra cost.

    • It is a nice idea CR, but where are they going to get the weightings? Right now, Stats Can uses the whole Census to weight its volunteer surveys?

      • I suppose Stats Can could get its weightings from the 2011 mandatory set alone, and the 2011 voluntary set would be used strictly for testing purposes.

        • That will only work for one year. The subsequent voluntary surveys still can't be weighted.

    • "This will allow the government to step back gracefully."

      The government could also step forward gracefully, gracefully admit a mistake, and gracefully rectify the situation.
      Sadly, they "don't do 'gracefully' ".

      • Compromise is part of the art of politics. This issue has blown up to the point where a 180 degree reversal by the government is almost impossible.

        I honestly think that my proposal is the best solution for everyone. I'd be interested to see what Stephen Gordon thinks of it (and Tony Clement, for that matter).

        • At this point, wouldn't the existence of the mandatory long form in 2011 be a 180 degree reversal?

          • To some extent, yes, but it would allow the voluntary data to be tested against the mandatory data. If the weighted voluntary data proved to be acceptably reliable, it could pave the way for a much less controversial transition to a voluntary long form in 2016.

        • I fully agree that your proposal is the best solution at this point. But, as noted above, these guys just don't give a sh*t about "gracefully."' Now, they won't lose an election on this, but you know they'd rather fall on their swords and lose an election on it than change their minds. They're going to bring back the party subsidy cut again and gamble on a coalition challenge, because they play for all or nothing. Because even if they lose they win– having an absolutely enraged fanatical base, pumping their party tonnes o' money, is better than ever admitting they were wrong.

    • I think the change is idiotic, but unless I'm missing something, I'd go for something like that.

    • A good, workable and accountable compromise.
      It's a shame Tony couldn't have come up with a thoughtful idea like this in the first place – too busy with his own riding I guess.
      And Statscan would still have Munir Sheikh

      • I agree with most of that, but as I've said before, poor Tony is being made to wear this by the PMO who truly made the decision. He's a coward for not disagreeing– because I believe he truly believes this is bad policy– but ya gotta do what the boss sez at all times. And so his "defence" of the decision has been inept as hell.

        • Well, Munir Sheikh had the courage to stand up to his boss, or at least not support him. Is Tony Clement a lesser man? I would like to think not as I prefer to think the best of everyone. Perhaps Minister Clement agrees that there will be a loss of validity with a voluntary survey, but won't say so, because he fully supports the change as a step towards some other long term goal that he is in favour of, which he also won't speak of. This government courts a reputation of being chess players so it's not far fetched to think that they may see some future advantage to changing the census. It seems that the goal, if there is one, remains a mystery.

          I agree with CR that we should all be looking for a compromise that allows the government to step back from this decision. It is truly abysmal that our government is not mature enough to be able to find one on their own.

    • It's a very good idea Crit. It is essentially gets the government back to what André Pratte reasonable approach.

    • Wouldn't that translate into an exercise in futility? You mention that the US have 'been there, done that' in 2004, but what you don't mention is that it has apparently proven to be an utter failure. So why even bother? "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." (Albert Einstein)

  6. How the census went from a quinquennial chore to a national crisis

    Answer: The left-wing outrage machine, including Aaron Wherry.

    • Aided by the right wing outrage machine….

      • Right wingers were outraged at the thought that an at-the-threat-of-jail intrusive census was no longer at-the-threat-of-jail? Gee, I thought it was the usual suspects from the left, including Aaron Wherry.

        • No.

        • Yes.

    • I hate that left-wing Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, and that left-wing Canadian Marketing Association. They're just NDP shills, all day long.

      • And the leftwing Canadian Jewish Congress.

        • Since when are they champions of the right? For example, they want speech laws as much as you do, don't they?

          • The rightwing is mostly evangelical, and they support the Jewish Congress.

          • Since when?

          • Since always.

            Even Harper is evangelical.

          • Well, some would question how evangelical he actually is, but how does that make him a supporter of a liberal group like the CJC? Or do you simply lump all supporters of Israel and Jews into one basket?

          • Oh, you mean Harper supports the Palestinians?

            That's news. You should tell someone.

            He is a member of The Christian and Missionary Alliance which is an Evangelical Protestant denomination within Christianity.

          • a) He hasn't exactly pursued evangelical doctrine a prime minister, to the chagrin of, well, evangelicals.

            b) Again, how does that make any of them supporters of the CJC, or the CJC a part of this country's right-wing?

            Nola, you pulled this kind of stuff on a garbage board like Bourque's. Please try to refrain on here. Thanks.

          • Oh, are you rating him on the state of his soul now…are we into playing who is a 'real' evangelical?

            I'm sorry, but he's a member, on both his site and theirs.

            Evangelicals support the state of Israel, Jews and Armageddon.

            Fred, if you can't argue a topic YOU chose, just go have supper or something.

          • Heh heh.

          • I'm not sure if they are champions of the right, but they do like Harper's support of Israel, so I was surprised to see them complain.

            And let's not forget the left-wing C.D. Howe institute.

          • Probably most accurate to say that the CJC are champions of Jewish interests.

            As such, they do like Harper's strong support of Israel, and probably also find alignment with Harper on at least a few other issues.

            But when Harper ("the right") puts forward a position or policy that does not align with the CJC's interests, the CJC is often comfortable taking an opposing stance, as in the case of the census and (IIRC, and as Dennis mentioned) regarding the free speech/hate speech issue.

            If only there were no exceptions to stereotypes, life would be so much simpler. ;-)

      • Ah yes, the only time those two organization get any play in the media is when they happen to be on-side with the left-wing outrage machine. Funny that. Also, I don't think they've been nearly as outraged as the outrage machine itself. Pretty sure, especially given how loud the latter can be, of course.

        • I don't think we were talking about whether they get enough time in the media. I think you were suggesting that only left-wing groups/individuals were making the census change an issue, which is patently false. Dozens of organizations with no political stripe at all, many individuals with very capitalist credentials (therefore probably being less left-wing but no guarantee), and many statisticians have called this a bad move.

          You can think it's a good move, that's a legitimate position. But claiming it's only left-wing, as some have, or claiming that math just acts the way you want, as Tony Clement has, is simply false. Not opinion.

          • Special Interest Groups come from both the left and right.

            Church groups are neither,
            as was obvious when Liberal MPs killed the Liberal abortion motion.

            I am particularly taken back at the response I got from Mc Denis of the United Church.
            When I get her permission to make public her answer to 'the threat of jail' thing,
            will say more.

          • And has anybody considered that these special interest groups will now be able to over-represent themselves?

          • The churches complaint is a voluntary census would under represent their groups,
            and over represent the middle class,
            I can't think of any special interest group representing the middleclass

      • And the Canada West Foundation and the C.D. Howe Institute – bunch of knee jerk lefties.

      • Not to mention the communists at the CD Howe Institute

    • You're so happy in your right-wing outrage machine to have an issue to counter the left wing outrage machine with. That was the whole Fing point of this decision and shows Harper is almost deranged in his desire for polarization.

    • I think you missed a step in there.

  7. Statscan has become unaccountable to Canadians. They use the fact that their census is mandatory to ask insulting and personal questions (my ethnic background is … Canadian, but this is not an option to check off). If they go beyond a reasonable infringement to my life, I want the right to refuse to take part. They want the right to put me jail for it. This is no-brainer for the Conservatives.

    • I believe the no-brainer and Conservatives part.

    • Oh puleeze.

      More like Conservatives are no-brainers.

    • Judging by the wide-ranging opposition to their idiotic census position, the only entity presently unaccountable to Canadians is the Conservative Party of Canada.

      • Rick, like the Conservatives, is using the strategy of: don't let the facts get in the way of a spurious, polarizing position.

    • These are standard demographic questions.

    • "Canadian" isn't an ethnic background! Do you even know what ethnicity is?

  8. The data is needed,so lets get it exactly the same way as before.How else could you accurately compare.I suspect strongly that that is the reason for the proposed change in the first place.Our Mr. Harper,the controller that he is,would like to eliminate anything that would allow a accurate comparison between his "Reign" and other Governments. It could
    just not come out as positive as he may hope, and a chance of that is not acceptable!
    He is well on his way in becoming the worst Prime Minister in modern Canadian history,surpassing even John Diefenbaker.

  9. I am a native Canadian. I am not an aboriginal. The old census is intrusive and insulting to real Canadians.

    • Ahh here we go with the 'real' Canadians stuff again.

      Anyone who is a citizen here, born or immigrant is a Canadian.

      And we all have ethnic backgrounds.

    • Oh Philanthropist, you're so misanthropic.

  10. some language in the old census regarding race is insensitive, and I'm sorry you feel hurt by it. However, these questions are important, if we want justice for our indigenous communities. If we don't see whether indigenous people find it harder to find employment, we don't see why employment equity matters. If we don't see that a certain quarter of town is comprised of predominately LGBT people, we don't know to make sure to offer them the health services they may need.

  11. Is this all part of the Conservative's plan to wean Canadians from state-sponsored public assistance? If they don't plan to put taxpayers' money into the social system, the need for at least a portion of the current statistics gathered is diminished.

  12. Garneau is absolutely right. There is simply no other reasonable explanation, especially the red herring that "the census in its previous form represented nothing less than an authoritarian intrusion into the private lives of Canadians". Nobody was complaining about it until the Harper government decided once again to fix something that ain't broke.

    The Harper government's responses to opponents of this decision suggests nothing but obstinate defiance – they will not consider any opinion other than their own. So if they aren't interested in expert opinions, I doubt they would even consider a compromise. As usual they're leaving themselves no choice but to persist in defying the experts.

    I think one expert on the matter said the other day that if even one year of the long-form census is voluntary, it will skew the entire database forever.

    • And Harper knows this – he's used the data himself. Clement – I'm not so sure. Although I don't understand how anybody could be a Health Minister – twice – and not have learned anything about data collecyion.

  13. 'Mind your own business' – a phrase not heard often enough anymore.

    • "We do not say someone who takes no interest in politics minds his own business, we say he has no business here at all."
      – Pericles.

    • Oh Philanthropist, you're so misanthropic.

  14. So, has no one brought this up: all the fanatical-about-privacy supporters of this decision have not thought long term. Because the info is going to be compiled somehow or other, so I hope you enjoy the cross-platform, cross-ministry interlinked Big Brother databases that will now be set up to track all of us. Nice work there, ya bunch o' spite-your-faces.

    • Actually, several of the tin-foil headgear crew have suggested this. Typically the wording goes that "government already has all this information anyway, so they should be able to access it in a more cost effective fashion. There is an element of truth to this, between income tax, license, hospital records & passport applications the various levels of government have a lot of info and since google came out it is clear that the technology to pull all the disparate pieces together exists even on a as-needed basis.

      Trying to understand this, I came to the conclusion that if you are truly paranoid then you probably believe those data-bases already exist. It is still nutty, but at least it is internally consistent.

    • There's already all kinds of safeguards in place. You'd be surprised at how difficult it is even for two federal departments to share data. Even when the data has the identifying information removed. The privacy monkeys have already made information sharing across departments horribly inefficient and costly.

      • I agree. But what's to stop future governments (or even this one though unlikely) from making information sharing across departments now more easy because the long form will be less reliable?

  15. What about making the long form mandatory, but remove the threat of imprisonment? Also, the government could introduce a system which would allow people to make a conscientious objection to completing the census form. In order for the objection to be approved, one would have to make a statement before a Statistics Canada official at one of their regional offices which outlines one's reasoning for declining to complete the form. This way, filling out the long form actually takes less time than filing an objection, allowing the government to separate those who are lazy from those who actually have a deep, personal belief against providing the census with their personal data.

    • Quick addition to my earlier post: The statement itself would not be recorded in any fashion, and the statement does not have to be unnecessarily long or detailed (for example, one could say 'I do not wish to fill out the long census form because it violates my personal beliefs'). All that would be recorded was the Mr/Ms X is a conscientious objector to the long form for the census, as witnessed by Statistics official Mr/Ms Y in the following Statistics Canada/Service Canada office in Anycity on DD/MM/YYYY).

      The main point is that an objector would have to make an appointment and go through a procedure that would take just as much time, if not more, than filling out the long form. That way, those who are lazy would risk a fine, while those with a deep objection to the census can be excluded without risk of penalty or punishment.

  16. Those so concerned about privacy (all of a sudden) need to be reminded that statisticians (or government) do not actually care about their individual information. Their names are removed before analysis takes place. What does matter is group results.

  17. "National Crisis!!"

    Yes, over the weekend as families gathered at the lake, at barbecues or at the CFL game, everyone could be heard buzzing about the…….ahem….census.

    The leftist, out-of-touch media's attempt to gin up everything into a scandal against the unacceptibely conservative government has now gone beyond comical.

    And in other news (that people will actually be talking about) Clement risks his life to save a drowning woman

  18. And unlike prorogue (which happened 104 times before…before it became a SCANDAL!!! that is)

    how often have you heard of one of the most senior members of a government diving into dangerous waters to save someone?

    A nice stark reminder just what's important and how out of touch our leftist media really is…this comes just as our agenda journalists out there were pratically photoshopping horns over Clements head.

  19. So now it's a "crisis"? Kind of like the vaccine "crisis" I guess. It may well be a PR crisis for the PMO and cabinet, but a "national crisis"? What happens when we're faced with a real crisis? With this level of neuroticism, there won't be any scribes whose nerves are steady to write about it.

  20. What is the big deal with this census,if I'm forced to answer a questionnaire by the government and I don't like the question,I lie,big deal.

  21. While I think jail time is a bit much, I think a fine is perfectly reasonable.

    I mean for pete's sake, if parking in the wrong spot gets you a $250 fine in some cases, how is a $500 fine for not doing your civic duty considered harsh?

    Look at your taxes and jury duty. Both part of our civic duty and both require the submission of a lot of personal information.

    How is this any different?