NEWS23 July 2010

Canada’s chief statistician resigns in protest at government plans for census

Government North America

CANADA— Chief statistician Munir Sheikh has resigned as opposition mounts over government plans to replace the mandatory long-form census with a voluntary questionnaire.

In a letter released to the public, Sheikh made it clear he was against the proposal.

“I want to take this opportunity to comment on a technical issue which has become the subject of media discussion,” he said. “This relates to the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census. It can not.”

Sheikh’s comments and his decision to resign are believed to have been prompted by statements made in the press by industry minister Tony Clement which suggested that Statistics Canada officials had reassured him that the 2011 census could be managed effectively without forcing some people to fill out the longer version of the form.

In the letter, Sheikh said that legally he could not comment on what advice he and Statistics Canada had given to government. “The government can make this information public if it so wishes,” he said.

Members of Statistics Canada’s advisory council have, however, spoken out against the plans. The Globe and Mail quotes council member Don Drummond as saying that “the council unanimously believed that abandoning the mandatory long-form census would skew the 2011 results, causing a statistical break with previous surveys that would it make impossible to read and project trends accurately”.

Similar fears were expressed by the Marketing Research & Intelligence Association (MRIA) in a letter to Clement. “The experience of survey researchers and social scientists is that those in lower income groups, ethnic minorities and the most wealthy citizens are least likely to answer questions voluntarily,” said the MRIA. “This would lead to skewed data and doubts about the accuracy of information that is relied upon by public policy and business decision-makers.”

Clement has also been sent a letter signed by two dozen leaders from business, government and academia urging the government to change course and stick with the mandatory census.

The government insists the change to a voluntary questionnaire is necessary to answer privacy concerns. “In the past, the Government of Canada received complaints about the long-form census from citizens who felt it was an intrusion of their privacy,” Clement has said. “The government does not believe it is appropriate to force Canadians to divulge detailed personal information under threat of prosecution.”

But those claims have been undermined by Canada’s privacy commissioner, who said recently that there have been only three complaints about the census in the last decade.