A census is a tool used by a country’s government and major businesses to respectively tailor services and products to the corresponding population. In Canada, a democratic state, the census holds utmost importance in that regard as a vital communiqué between the people and their elected officials. Taken every five years, it is, as noted by Armine Yalnizyan of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, “The mother ship of all surveys.”
Given the weight of such a public survey, it wasn’t surprising that many veterans in the Canadian “statistics community” were baffled by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision to no longer make the census a mandatory obligation, but a voluntary one. The head of Statistics Canada (Stats-Can), Munir Sheikh, arguably the country’s top statistician, has resigned over the matter, and rebuked the Harper administration in a highly publicized letter, stating that a voluntary census won’t work. The statistics that a voluntary census yields will be the consequences of “self-selection”, making it incomparable with previously collected statistics. The same goes for Ivan Fellegi, Sheikh’s predecessor, who also rebuked the Tory decision.
“Others upset include: the Federation of Canadian Municipalities; Atlantic Provinces Economics Council; City of Toronto; Canadian Association for Business Economics; Canadian Economics Association; Canadian Association of University Teachers; Canadian Institute of Planners; Canadian Council of Social Development; even the National Statistical Council (that acts in a consultative capacity for StatsCan),” according to Haroon Siddiqui of the Toronto Star.
The official reason for the decision to make the census voluntary came from Industry Minister Tony Clement, who calls the census “coercive and intrusive.” Another stated reason was to “protect the privacy of Canadians.” However, Harper has had a difficult relationship with Stats-Can since in the past, gutting or changing several other smaller surveys, including the The annual Workplace and Employee Survey, The Survey of Financial Security, and The annual Survey of Household Spending. These were all political decisions, congruent with the Harper administration’s apparent habit of secrecy and obfuscation.
Moreover, ever since Stephen Harper came to power, Stats-Can employees have privately confessed that the agency had shifted in focus, “away from social issues and towards more economic subjects,” reports the Globe and Mail. This certainly points to a more coercive way of managing information by the Tory establishment, who are tilting the methodology of Stats-Can’s data-analysis, thus changing its analytical objectives altogether.
The decision to basically gut the census is just another extension of how the Harper government likes to fiddle with the machinery of government, tailoring its dynamics to fit a “Tory mindset”, so to speak. The Harper administration has gutted numerous NGOs, prorogued parliament (twice), and spent $1 billio- plus on the G8/G20 summits, among other deeds. Eliminating a key pillar of Canadian democracy almost seems to make sense when seen in context, and hardly surprising.