Farewell Ivan Fellegi
I was recently appointed to the National Statistics Advisory Council and, in that capacity, was present on Thursday and Friday at the last Council meeting for which Ivan Fellegi will hold the post of Chief Statistician. Having served more than 20 years in that post, Fellegi is something of a legend in a town where the typical Deputy Minister serves far, far shorter terms, often little longer than a year or two.
Fellegi has profoundly shaped Statistics Canada to the point where it is currently ranked by most experts as the best in the world. Under his tenure, the agency has produced not just the (exceptionally reliable) numbers we need to conduct basic social and economic analysis, butÂ also many pioneering special surveys, and a raft of analytical studies which have framed Canadians understanding of the data. Over many years, many of us have looked to StatsCan for well-grounded and informative studies on what we on the progressive left see as the key issues – most notably trends in earnings and family income inequality, and the extent to which some Canadians are being left behind even as national income grows.
The National Post has charged StatsCan with promoting class war for the way in which it packaged the release of key income data from the 2006 Census – and the release indeed appropriately highlighted the growth of earnings inequality, gender inequality, and the lagging fortunes of recent immigrants. The publicity given to the inequality story was the result, in significant part, of hard advance work on the part of StatsCan itself.Â We are all the better for it.
I’ve sometimes criticized StatsCan in the past for not being too forthright in drawing policy-relevant conclusions from its analytical studies. The agency rightly seeks to be, and not just to be seen to be, “neutral” – not least because there are enormous pressures from the government side not to highlight some of the more uncomfortable facts of our national condition.
To my mind, and that of many others, Ivan Fellegi made a huge contribution by striking the right balance and thus preserving the independence of StatsCan,Â and by building up on organization of impressive capacity.Â A recent public opinion survey found itÂ is one of the most highly trusted federal institutions from the perspective of ordinary Canadians.That’s no mean accomplishment in today’s world.
It is to be hoped that the Fellegi tradition will endure as he transitions into new roles (nobody expects Ivan to actually retire!)