The federal government’s decision to replace the mandatory, long-form census with a voluntary survey has left information gaps about Canada’s changing demographics, experts say.

The first results of the 2011 voluntary National Household Survey, released Wednesday, had a response rate of 68 per cent, well below the projected 94 per cent response rate for a traditional census.

Rafael Gomez, a professor of industrial relations and human resources at the University of Toronto, said that means vital data about certain groups is being underreported.

“Typically it’s people who are lower-income, often immigrants because they might have problems with the language,” Gomez told CTV News Channel Wednesday.

In one example, Statistics Canada said survey information about people who came to Canada from the Philippines between 2006 and 2011 didn't correspond with Citizenship and Immigration Department numbers.

People from smaller towns also tend not to respond to voluntary surveys, Gomez said, which results in those communities being “effectively lost.”

“It’s like a black hole -- we don’t know anything about what’s going on in a certain community,” he said.

In fact, Statistics Canada cautioned Wednesday that the results of the National Household Survey were less reliable when it came to communities with fewer than 25,000 residents.

Because of low response rates, the agency decided to withhold all data on 1,128 -- or a quarter -- of Canadian municipalities. Most of those are rural or First Nations communities.

In the 2006 long-form census, data was withheld for only 200 communities.

Towns and cities excluded this time around include Bonavista, N.L., Pictou, N.S., Sackville, N.B., Dauphin, Man., Vulcan, Alta., and Tofino, B.C.

Saskatchewan had the worst survey results, with no information on more than 500, or 43 per cent, of the province’s communities.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the Canadian Council of Social Development expressed their concerns about the spotty data.

"Canadians live and breathe at the local level. Even if the long-form data wasn't used to make a decision, it informed a decision," said Peggy Taillon, CEO of the Canadian Council on Social Development.

"If it was a decision on where to put the next family health team, or fire station, you would look at a number of data to make that decision and one of the greater inputs would always be the long-form."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper defended the National Household Survey Wednesday. His government decided in 2010 to scrap the long-form census, citing privacy concerns.

But the move sparked outrage and protests, as opposition parties and major organizations asked Ottawa to reconsider.

Gomez pointed out that there have been calls from both private and public sectors to reinstate the long-form, mandatory questionnaire.

“Otherwise you’re going to have this continual, non-reporting bias that will grow over time,” he said.

With files from The Canadian Press