A response to Mr. Clement about his response to my letter on the Census

Here is my response to a letter sent to me by Mr. Tony Clément, Minister of Industry of the “New Government” of Canada, aka the Conservative Party, regarding my letter expressing my concerns about the cancellation of the Long-Form Census.

I admit, that it is a passionate response!

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Mr. Clément;

Thank you for this response;

I have provided my comments inline, please forgive the lack of brevity, and if you like you can also read this on datalibre.ca.

On Tue, Sep 14, 2010 at 11:37 AM, <Minister.Industry@ic.gc.ca> wrote:

Thank you for your letter regarding the 2011 Census of Population.  This government recognizes the importance of this issue for Canadians and appreciates the time you have taken to share your views on this matter.

Your welcome Mr. Clement, but I assure you, I would have preferred to be focusing my limited time to doing my version of citizenship by conducting research on and using the Census to inform public policy rather than doing citizenship by trying to save it.  I thank you for providing me with the opportunity to dis-place my civic energies.

As you are aware, the Government of Canada has made the decision to conduct the census as the short form only, which will be sent to all Canadian households in May 2011.  We believe that these recent changes to the Census, along with the introduction of the voluntary National Household Survey (NHS), strike a better balance between the need to collect information on households to inform public policy and protecting the privacy rights of Canadians.

Yes, I am acutely aware of the decision this “New Government” has made.  First in its announcement, then the media fanfare, and also, in how your office wiped deliberations on the topic in your Digital Economy Consultation (1) (2).  The balance you are alluding to is however tipping toward inaccuracy, lack of continuity,  removing the ability to do reliable time series analysis, ability to do micro scale analysis and is introducing sample bias, as was made clear by the numerous experts that appeared at the INDU Committee special sessions on the Census, former chief statisticians, academics, statisticians and by the National Statistics Council.  Further, local analyzes is only possible with a mandatory Census.  There are no other data sources that provide data at the micro scale on all of the items that could be and were collected in the long form Census.  The Census helps us understand who we are as Canadians, it is an inventory of the population and its composition.  Just like an auditor does not ask a business to do a partial voluntary inventory of their products for taxation purposes, we should not be doing a partial non mandatory count of who we are as a people.  It is just not good policy.

In addition, as the Privacy Commissioner rightly pointed out, there have never been Census privacy breaches.  Knowing Statistics Canada quite well, the thing I can say for sure, it is an institution extremely well attuned and organized to prevent privacy breaches.   Privacy is how they have built trust and it is why it was lauded as the best in the world along with their methodological rigour and its former distance from political meddling.

The 2011 Census of Population will consist of 10 questions: the same 8 questions that appeared on the 2006 Census short-form questionnaire plus 2 questions regarding the ability to speak in one of Canada’s two Official Languages and the language spoken at home.  I assure you that the addition of these questions will support the implementation of the Official Languages Act and its regulations.  The Government of Canada remains committed to official languages and to supporting the vitality of official language communities.

I am glad the government cares about French Language groups, as do I, but does the government not care about people with disabilities, women and their contribution to the economy even if unpaid, aboriginal people, ethno-visible cultural minorities, education, housing and employment?  Surely, these too are critically important to Canada and Canadians.

Census information previously collected by the long-form census questionnaire will be collected as part of a new voluntary NHS. The NHS will be distributed to 1 in 3 households, which represents approximately 4.5 million households, an increase from 2.9 million households surveyed in 2006. Statistics Canada has extensive experience in conducting voluntary surveys and will apply its same rigorous methods and standards to conduct and release survey data.  The Chief Statistician has indicated that this new approach will provide useful and usable data that can meet the needs of many users.

Yes, Canada does have experience conducting surveys.  And the outcome of that experience has demonstrated that you require a census that is mandatory to validate, weigh and adjust what has been collected voluntarily.  In addition, as we have seen with PALS, and many other voluntary surveys, they disappear because there is no strong legislated mandate to fund them. In addition, the sample sizes of voluntary surveys preclude community based local analysis which disables place based planning.  Not one of the voluntary surveys allow for sub city scale analysis, cross-neighbourhood comparisons let alone inner city health districts, city wards and most certainly provide little knowledge for rural communities.  Just like the telecoms did not fulfill the promise of connecting all Canadians, no private data collecting company will dare take the risk of studying anything but big cities leaving rural Canadians in the dark.  That is the role of the government, that is why we have government, civil society and the private sector with separate roles and functions.  National Statistics is a core function of government, that is why, like survey mapping, it is one of Canada’s oldest formal public functions.  Furthermore, many of these voluntary surveys are aggregated only at the level of the CMA.  As you are aware, CMAs are a statistical construct and not reflective of city or municipal administrations, making the data derived from these not helpful to city and community planners on the ground.  Finally, Statistics Canada has provided you with reports and analyzes on the problems of voluntary surveys.  I trust that those public servants had done their job at providing you with the good information you need to re-consider your position, that is what good governing is about – hire the best to give you the best.  Unless of course you have a team of highly specialized and qualified statisticians on staff who can provide me with grounded research to support your position and counter theirs.

Also, which Chief Statistician are you referring to and can you point me to the record where he has said that?  Which users?  Certainly not to anyone or any organization doing trend analysis, Mr. Carney or the 350+ organizations, associations, universities, medical practitioners, demographers, statisticians, planners, cities, rural municipalities, provinces, banks, students, sociologist, nurses, and business people, to name a few, that have explicitly stated that they want the long-form census reinstated (3).  Furthermore, I am not sure of the business case for the NHS, since you have indicated that it will cost more to Canadians yet be less reliable and accurate.  Furthermore, StatCan clients, experts and citizens alike, the same who have stated they want the long-form Census reinstated, those same clients, who normally purchase census data, have clearly stated that they do not trust that the NHS results will be as good as the Census and that it will not meet their needs.  Thus – while not in any way being an advocate on the selling of our public data - would you not also loose revenue by trying to sell a more expensive and inferior product to clients who no longer want or trust what you are selling?  Bref, it will cost more to create something of poorer quality that you may not be able to resell.  Perhaps you can enlighten me on that particular business model?  Are you suggesting that StatCan become a suburban big box warehouse shopping centre that sells low quality cheap products made in, well, less than suitable factories?  That is the only successful business model I know of that resembles this new NHS business model.

Beyond the provision of limited and essential information, we do not believe it is appropriate to demand extensive private and personal information from Canadians under threat of imprisonment.  That is why our government announced its intention to introduce legislation this fall to remove threats of jail time for persons refusing to fill out the Census and all mandatory surveys administered by Statistics Canada. An additional legislative amendment will also be made to require respondents’ consent on whether personal information from the NHS questionnaire can be released after 92 years.

I am glad you removed jail time.  However, as you know, no one has ever gone to jail for not filling out the Census.  Just like some towns still have laws on hitching posts, those and the jail term for the census are old remnants of our past, certainly you could have removed the jail time,  included a fine and kept the long-form census.  Regarding consent, that was already in the census.  It was a tick box were respondents allowed or disallowed the sharing of their responses after 92 years, so I am uncertain as to why you considered this as a valid reason for new legislation and the cancellation of the long-form.  Informed consent is something Statistics Canada is very good at.  Also, you may want to review the Canadian Tri-Council Statements on research with human subjects, since they have put into place excellent ethical research practices on the topic of consent in research for quite some time.  I do not recall them advocating for the reduction of research standards in order to meet ethical guidelines as you are advocating for the NHS.  Regarding private information.  Why is it that farmers must fill out the Agricultural Census?  It is a more extensive Census which also includes many private questions.  Also, CRA asks quite a few private questions, should we also stop the practice of collecting taxes? Personally, I do not collect AirMiles because I consider that a serious invasion of my privacy, more-so than any Census.  I also do not support RFID tags, nor do I disclose personal information in social media spaces like facebook.  Those are far more invasive than the Census yet Canadians willfully give out their personal data, lots of it, for some sort of economic, consumer friendly and social return all the while the “New Government” is manufacturing malcontent on the Census? I’m confused.  The Census is a collective civic duty, our national navigation system, it helps us understand ourselves, directs how we manage and helps us become a better more just country in all of our splendid diversity.

Okay, perhaps, this is where StatCan has failed a little, it did not make friends with its cost recovery policies, nor its regressive and restrictive data licensing practices, to no fault of their own since it is the Treasury Board that decides and allocates resources, and it was the “New Government” that turned down StatCan’s offer at giving back to Canadians what was already theirs, their Census data.  In addition, StatCan decreased its education and outreach functions.  StatCan used to reach out and explain what the questions were about, why they were asked, how they came to be and how important each and everyone was.  Like many great Canadian institution, reduced budgets and downsizing has led them to cut back on effectively communicating to Canadians how important they are as an institution, their function and most importantly, reminding us why they do what they do.  You can find that information, but really, beyond people like me, who goes digging in the deep lurkium spaces of the StatCan website for those reports? This lack of good communication and openness has led to the creation of the fertile territory within which the “New Government” has richly sewed its seeds of mis- and dis-information about the Census.  As a colleague said to me yesterday, never in her best dystopian dreams, had she conjured the idea of doing away with the census.  That says a lot, as she has been working on anti-poverty, social justice and homelessness issues for decades.

I encourage all Canadians who receive the 2011 Census form to complete it and participate in the National Household Survey if their household is selected.

Thank you for the words of Encouragement.  However, I would rather fill out the Census, as at least I know I am contributing and investing time into a solid, renown, well established and world recognized statistical institution.  A National Household Survey, well, it falls way way short of a mandatory Census, and for community based analysis, well it just does not cut it.  I would rather give my time to a Census than waste my time on an inaccurate and more expensive process.  But, I am hoping our governments will come to its senses and re-instate the long-form census, as that is what good governance is.

Yours sincerely,

Sincèrement à vous

Tony Clement

Tracey Lauriault

PS – Please forgive my grumpiness Minister Clement, it is just that I feel that  a key part of the democratic process has been usurped and dismantled, and well, like many Canadians, I loose sleep when, well, when I see ideology and ill informed opinions replace evidence based decision making.  Normally, that kind of doing, thinking or practice, happens, well, in un-democratic countries, and it worries the heck out of me when it is so overtly apparent here.

1 comment

Thanks for all the great work Tracey