A federal advisory panel is proposing a compromise in the debate over the mandatory long-form census: Keep the form, but drop the threat of jail time for those who don't fill it out.

The National Statistics Council, the government-appointed advisory body to the chief statistician, says the data collected through the long form is key to tracking changes in society and the economy.

The council urged the Conservative government on Monday to reverse its plan to scrap the mandatory long form, a decision that has triggered an unexpected uproar from government, non-government and business organizations since it was quietly announced in June.

But the council agreed with the government that Canadians shouldn't face potential jail time or fines for refusing to share personal information, and suggested those penalties be removed from the Statistics Act.

Privacy concerns are at the heart of the census dispute, with critics of the long form arguing it forces Canadians to divulge highly personal information that could be misused. But long form supporters say the information is required for research, planning and policy work.

"The debate is being polarized in a way that is not helpful," warns sociology professor David Murakami Wood, a member of The Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen's University.

Those against the long form insist that asking personal questions is in and of itself an infringement on privacy, but what really matters is what's done with the information, Murakami Wood told CTV.ca on Monday afternoon.

Once collected, the information isn't identifiable, which means it poses no threat to privacy, said Murakami Wood, who also serves as managing editor of Surveillance & Society, the international journal of surveillance studies.

"The government doesn't keep a big database of people's habits," he said.

Overall, he said, privacy standards are more stringent in Canada than in many other countries, including the U.S. What's more, the census methods have been cleared by the privacy commissioner.

The controversy has led many to worry that Statistics Canada will lose its reputation for remaining independent of politics.

Chief statistician Munir Sheikh resigned last week over the matter. His predecessor, Ivan Fellegi, expressed similar concerns.

Sheikh and Industry Minister Tony Clement will be among the witnesses testifying at a Commons committee on the matter Tuesday.

The statistics council says it's too late to review the questions in the 2011 census, but recommends a makeover for the 2016 edition to eliminate overly intrusive and superfluous questions.

In a statement released Monday, the council proposes modifying the 2016 form so that each question meets at least one of the following criteria:

  • The information is required by law or cabinet direction;
  • It is needed for small-area data uses for which there is no alternate source;
  • It is needed to create benchmarks for measuring difficult-to-reach groups and ensuring that subsequent surveys or data derived from administrative sources can be sampled or weighted to reflect accurately the overall population;
  • It is needed to gauge progress on national issues, such as the integration of newcomers; or
  • It will serve as the basis for further survey sampling of small or dispersed groups, such as people with health conditions that limit their activity.

With files from The Canadian Press