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Editorial: Revisiting the census

Census online
Census online

It’s an ongoing, seemingly never-ending debate. How best to reconcile the rights of citizens to their privacy versus the needs of governments to obtain reliable information to develop sound public policy?

The arguments that led to the suspension of the mandatory, long-form census in 2010 by the Harper government are well documented. Big Brother was told to butt out. It had powerful, conservative appeal.

But in doing so it lessened the value of this vital information-gathering too. The short, voluntary survey sent out in 2011 left a huge void in terms of essential data. Declining response rates and less information have hurt public policy.

The overall response rate for the mandatory, long-form census was an impressive 94 per cent in 2006. The number plummeted to 69 per cent for the voluntary National Household Survey in 2011.

Even Conservative MP Tony Clement recanted his decision to cancel the long-form census as industry minister in 2011. Now he suggests there may have been a better way to reconcile the need for data collection with privacy protection.

The Trudeau government restored the long-form survey mere days after winning the election last fall and the 2016 census came and went without much criticism.

The long-form census asks about many things, including income, cultural heritage, education, work habits and where people live. It gives researchers an invaluable source of data to understand Canadian society. The data is used in numerous ways — to plan public health and transit and rural development, for example. We must take it seriously.

Some argue the census must be voluntary or we don't live in a free country. We must pay taxes or we don’t have hospitals, schools, roads and bridges. Common sense wins the argument that Statistics Canada needs quality data so we can have evidence-based policies.

The latest development involving Statistics Canada is new legislation to update the Statistics Act, expected this fall. The Liberal government has promised to give Statistics Canada more freedom and independence from government influence. It would ensure decisions by the chief statisticians take priority over politics.

Proposed changes would make all Statistics Canada surveys mandatory. Certainly, independent professionals deciding on what data is needed and how to collect it is a better option than politicians sticking their noses into our private affairs. Dropping the threat of jail time for anyone who refuses to fill out surveys, such as the long-form census, is good news.

Canadians generally want to do their civic duty. Statistics Canada should respect that and be reasonable about how much information it needs or demands once it has new legislative powers.

After all, the needs of the many must outweigh the needs of the few.

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