Can the provinces fix the Census Fiasco?

Once again Stephen Harper has charted a course for the nation that drops the ball in the provinces’ and territories’ lap.

Since forming government in 2006, the Harper Conservatives have withdrawn federal presence from social policy, health policy, and climate change while ramping up defence, security and trade. The cut to the GST was less about putting a little more cash in our pockets than letting provinces decide whether they wanted or dared raise the revenue themselves. The census decision is yet another big step in the direction of making the provinces and territories do the heavy lifting when it comes to defining and funding the social and basic infrastructure services Canadians receive.

Their take-no-prisoners approach to the mandatory census long-form questionnaire takes this downloading of responsibility for citizens’ wellbeing one step further. We’ll see how the Premiers publicly respond when they meet at the end of next week. But here’s what they all know:

Public decision-making in 21st century developed nations relies on an evidence base. Effective and real democracy requires governments to balance the interests of all citizens. For that you need accurate and reliable information about who your population is, and how it is changing.

The Conservatives say the voluntary National Household Survey, made public this week, will provide this information adequately. But, if there was any doubt before, testimony from experts at Tuesday’s Industry Committee hearings made absolutely clear a voluntary survey cannot replace a mandatory census. To declare otherwise is stating a known falsehood.

Simply put, you cannot correct for sample bias if you don’t know the population from which the sample is drawn. Without making sure Canadians from all walks of life and all corners of the land are providing answers – information which the Conservatives agree is necessary, given the questions on the National Household Survey – there is no way to assess whether you are reflecting Canadian reality, or just the reality of those who opted to answer.

A voluntary survey cannot give us a true picture of Canada’s population by geography, immigrant status, ethno-racial background, household makeup, income level, educational attainment, housing conditions, and work/life balance. And without this information, it becomes exceedingly difficult if not impossible for governments at any level to attempt to practice the democratic ideal: a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Maybe that’s the point of this exercise.

Though Stephen Harper has a constitutional right to blind subsidiary levels of government, exercising that right raises serious questions about his judgment, and that of his government. The Conservative response is that provinces or cities, businesses or investors are free to collect what information they want. That willfully misses the point, as has become the dreary pattern in this debate.

The leaders of Canada’s provinces and territories meet in a few days in Winnipeg, at the annual Council of the Federation meeting. The question will be: if Harper’s team stays the course and pushes the mandatory long-form census questionnaire over the wall, can all the provinces’ horses and all the territories’ men put Humpty Dumpty back together again?

There are two answers, one operational and one political.

Operationally, should Harper’s decision go through, it will be difficult for the provinces and territories to cobble together a replacement for the mandatory census long-form questionnaire, for reasons such as:
• Creating an administrative infrastructure in each jurisdiction to roll out the process, ensure the security checks so critical for privacy reasons, and introduce a processing protocol that permits inter-jurisdictional sharing of information
• Finding consensus on the list of questions to be asked
• Developing a working relationship with the First Nations and Inuit communities, for which the federal government is responsible and which has been a slow and considered exercise of developing appropriate ways to gather information.
• Costs, with the northernmost jurisdictions facing the largest burdens.

Given the hurdles and the tight time-frame in which all this would have to come together, it is both more efficient and sensible to prevent the Conservative game-plan from taking us down this path. This is a matter of politics, but not partisanship.

The meeting of the provincial and territorial premiers may yet yield the game-changer moment or idea. From what has been said publicly thus far, and what we know of these Premiers, the turning point to this cliffhanger could come from:
• Premier Williams, a Conservative who is broadly respected for standing up to both the federal government and big business to protect the public interest of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador
• Premier Charest from Québec, who has made crystal clear that the proper functioning of the state cannot occur without reliable information and analysis. Any government of Québec also has an ongoing interest in comparing that jurisdiction’s outcomes to the rest of Canada.
• Premier McGuinty, a Liberal, who has stated it is difficult to see what “compromise” means on the matter of the mandatory long-form questionnaire. He has explicitly connected that concern with the fact that Ontario, along with other jurisdictions, has committed itself to a poverty reduction strategy. It will not be possible to assess the success of such initiatives, or even track any post-recession trends in inequality, housing affordability, etc. without the information gleaned from a mandatory census of people’s response to these types of questions.
• Premier Selinger, the host of the Council of the Federation meetings from August 4 to 6, who was appointed Finance Minister in 1999 when the NDP formed government in Manitoba under Gary Doer. He and the NDP have been there since. This is a province grappling with challenges facing their Aboriginal residents – some of the Canadians who will assuredly be under-counted and under-represented if the assessment of living and working conditions relies on the voluntary National Household Survey.
• Premier Aariak of Nunavut, whose colleague Elisapee Sheutiapik, Mayor of Iqaluit, provided such stirring testimony at Tuesday’s Industry Committee on the question of inadequate housing and over-crowding in her community, and communities throughout Nunavut. While stories are powerful, these leaders know stories cannot assess how systemic these problems are and whether they are changing over time. Data are, after all, the plural of anecdote.

Though the roots of this story are data and statistics, it is really a story about leadership, how one views the role of the state, and who speaks for Canadians, all Canadians. It crosses all party lines, including many died-in-the-wool Conservatives.

Former Chief Statistician Munir Sheikh became a national hero for his decision to say, with integrity and deference, “no” to the charade that this purely political and disruptive decision was supported by Statistics Canada.

Now we need more than a hero, more than someone who says no. We need leaders. Elected officials who will capture in clear and resonant language what is at stake for Canadians everywhere, and define what we are saying yes to.

That voice could come from any point of the compass in this land of sensible counters and take-no-guff pragmatists.

Can the provincial leaders fix the census mess? Perhaps. If so, it will be because statesmanship eclipsed brinksmanship. And that’s the type of leadership all Canadians want.


  • And shame on BC Premier Gordon Campbell for taking it so lightly, saying they’ll take what they can get from the feds, and for Housing Minister Rich Coleman for saying his ministry doesn’t even use the info, so who needs it…

  • Leanne MacMillan

    Sigh… I was really hoping that the Premiers would turn their minds to the enhancement of the Canada Pension Plan and a 15% immediate increase in the Guaranteed Income Supplement.! Cheers, Leanne

  • Quebec is the most likely to get some sort of mandatory census going next year, even if the provinces don’t agree on anything next week.

    Buried deep in a story I read two days ago, a senior official at the Institut de la statistique du Québec told a reporter (and by extension Raymond Bachand, the minister of Finances) that the ISQ could go in the field “if there is a political will”, but it would take “a lot of money”.

    While not Charest’s plan A, it looks like Quebec City is considering alternatives. Which is something understandable considering the end of the compulsory long form and the reporting of skewed data would have impacts on the evolution of linguistic and immigration policies, two potentially explosive issues needless to say.

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