Governance Media Transparency

2011 NHS: News since long-form Census cancellation of summer 2010

The media has once again taken up writing about the 2011 long-form Census cancellation in preparation for the first releases from its replacement, the 2011 National Household Survey (NHS). Readers would be hard-pressed to distinguish the media write-ups in recent days from those dating back to summer 2010.

What happened back in 2010

Munir Sheikh, who in his brief time as Chief Statistician gutted the agency’s social and environmental programs along with analytical research, somehow ended up a hero after resigning over the long-form Census cancellation.  In the original article that broke the Census cancellation story brief mention was made of cuts to programs and analytical research, along with an unsettling culture change coinciding with Mr. Sheikh’s arrival. The media failed to follow up, presumably because it didn’t fit with the developing narrative.

The official opposition at the time played politics with the issue – deservedly, it went on to suffer the greatest electoral defeat in party history. The federal government ultimately conceded to the addition of a couple of language questions to the short-form Census questionnaire.

There was no shortage of hypotheticals re the drop in data quality that would result from the changeover from a mandatory to a voluntary long-form. Reference was made to how municipalities could suffer from lower quality data that was necessary for urban planning and how social/community groups working with vulnerable communities could potentially suffer in the same way.

The cancellation of the Participation and Activity Limitation Survey (PALS) shortly thereafter received significantly less attention, though it was not completely unexpected: The PALS sample relied on a couple of questions on the long-form Census. The government promised to replace the PALS with another survey shortly thereafter.

The media eventually discovered that the voluntary 2008 Census test, conducted in preparation for the 2011 Census, contradicted then Industry Minister Tony Clement’s claim that StatsCan had assured him a voluntary survey could provide data of comparable quality to the long-form Census.  In 2008, less than half of the long-form test questionnaire recipients responded to it.

All the while the federal government Gong Show about protecting Canadians from long-form Census questions asking for the number of bathrooms in their homes went on largely unabated (despite the obvious fact the questionnaire included no such question).

What’s happened since

Munir Sheikh pulled his golden parachute and landed at Queen’s University. The career government hatchet man (PDF), in no small part thanks to the mistaken hero narrative, ended up heading The Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario (PDF). Not surprisingly, among the report’s recommendations was a cut to benefits for the province’s disabled. We’ve touched on the impact The Great Recession that began in 2008 had on the poor and disabled in Canada’s largest province. (Notably, during his brief tenure Mr. Sheikh directed StatsCan employees not to use the word “recession”.)

The federal opposition made some noise about the impact the loss of the long-form Census would have on federal official languages policy, going so far as to pursue a court challenge on the basis of the Official Languages Act. What it seemed to wilfully ignore was the greater role the long-form played in evaluating the performance of Canada’s legislative/statutory framework. Among other things, the Census Guide 2B 2006 noted:

Questions 7 and 8 provide information on the number of people in Canada who have difficulties with daily activities, and whose activities are reduced because of a physical condition, a mental condition, or a health problem. The results are used to help Statistics Canada find out more about the barriers these persons face in their everyday lives…

Question 17 provides information about the ethnic and cultural diversity of Canada’s population. This information is required under the Multiculturalism Act (s. 3.(2)(d)) (PDF) and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (PDF). It is also used extensively by ethnic and cultural associations, as well as by agencies and researchers, for activities such as health promotion, communications and marketing.

Questions 18, 20 and 21 provide information about Aboriginal or First Nation, Inuit and Métis peoples that is used to administer legislation and employment programs under the Indian Act and the Employment Equity Act. The information is also used by researchers and Aboriginal governments and associations to explore a wide variety of demographic and socio-economic issues. 

Question 19 tells us about the groups that make up the visible-minority population in Canada. This information is required for programs under the Employment Equity Act, which promotes equal opportunity for everyone.

The PALS relied on long-form Census questions 7 and 8 for its sample. The PALS sample became less of a concern when the government scrapped it shortly after scrapping the long-form Census. In 2012, PALS was quietly replaced by the Canadian Survey on Disability (CSoD), which uses the less reliable National Household Survey (NHS) for its sample. Unlike PALS, and every major StatsCan social survey before it, the CSoD is now a voluntary survey based on a sample taken from another voluntary survey. This will be the fate of all StatsCan social surveys that previously relied on the long-form census.

Like numerous required periodic reports on the operation of federal statutes, the Minister’s Annual Report on the Operation of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act cites the Census as its data source on immigrant and ethno-cultural communities. In addition to the loss of the long-form Census, the Longitudinal Survey on Immigrants to Canada is classified inactive, likely to be discontinued.

Canadians with disabilities and Canadian ethno-cultural communities are among the vulnerable minorities on whom data would become less reliable with the change from the Census to the voluntary NHS. The preceding are concrete examples of how the loss of the long-form Census has already had an adverse impact.

An example of how the loss of the mandatory long-form has already affected community organisations was previously touched on. Even if it ultimately does release data for lower-level geographies (census tracts, dissemination areas),  StatsCan’s uncertainty only six months prior to the first scheduled 2011 NHS releases speaks to the questionable quality of the data collected. (It will likely be compelled to release it eventually, irrespective of data quality.)

Going forward a few years, Canada’s Labour Force Survey (LFS), as notoriously unreliable as it already is, will become even more so. As succinctly stated here:

the long-form data is the basis for just about all of Statistics Canada’s important social measurements. The unemployment rate, for instance, is compiled from the monthly Labour Force Survey, but the sample used in that survey is based on the census data. Once the census data becomes voluntary, the unemployment rate will be considered less reliable, taking the heat off governments in times of rising unemployment.

Given that the LFS is used to determine qualifying hours and weeks entitlement for Employment Insurance (EI) benefits for the unemployed, the more unreliable LFS data will mean more questionable EI benefits denials and shorter benefits entitlements.

What’s the end game

A lot of the chatter following the government’s decision to scrap the long-form Census in 2010 accused it of trying to substitute ideology in the place of fact-based public policy. It’s plausible. However, the government seemed to go out of its way to make the point it could likely collect better, more accurate information at lower cost from administrative data.  A quick browse of online comments in support of the government’s position at the time appeared to repeat this ‘administrative database’ idea, elaborating on how certain Scandinavian countries don’t take a Census but rather rely on administrative records in lieu of a census..

The ‘ideologically-driven’ narrative seemed to ignore the government’s penchant for passing legislation curtailing Canadian civil liberties in the name of protecting Canadians from fill-in-the-blank (pedophiles, youth gangs, terrorists, etc). Little consideration was given to the possibility the long-form Census was cancelled in the name of protecting Canadians’ privacy, with the intent of passing legislation intended to egregiously breach same said privacy. It was not that long ago that a secret longitudinal administrative database (under a previous government) was cancelled upon discovery for violating Canadians’ privacy.

Canada Scraps Citizen Database
Wired News Report   May 30, 2000

Privacy Commissioner applauds dismantling of database
Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, May 29, 2000

That ‘super-database’ was innocuously named the Longitudinal Labour Force File (LLFF), HRDC PPU 335.

Given the options, well-informed Canadians would likely choose the far less intrusive long-form census over a secret government super-database that was previously found in breach of their privacy rights.

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