StatsCan's reputation damaged, former boss testifies
The former head of Statistics Canada says he quit his job over reports that the agency recommended the scrapping of the mandatory long-form census – reports that deeply damaged the agency's credibility.
Former chief statistician Munir Sheikh resigned last week and became emotional while testifying in front of the Industry Committee in Ottawa Tuesday.
"The issue for us is the quality of that data, and we acknowledge, as the minister did, that (the politicians) are the ones who make decisions not the public servants," Sheikh said.
"The reason I stepped aside was because of some media stories that Statistics Canada was not just implementing the decision, but recommending it."
The reports were based on comments by Industry Minister Tony Clement, who has since changed his tune.
Clement, who also appeared before the committee on Tuesday, clarified his comments and said the controversial decision to scrap the mandatory long-from census was made by his government solely to "balance the need for data with the concerns of Canadians."
"It was our government that took the decision to put an end to the concept of Canadians being fined or facing jail time," said Clement, adding that StatsCan did not agree with the move.
Clement did tell the committee he was willing to compromise before the change comes into effect for the 2011 census, saying he's willing to include questions on official languages on the mandatory short census that were about to be part of the new volunteer long-from survey.
In his testimony Tuesday before the Industry Committee, Sheikh said data obtained from the census is compared to previous years to measure change. He said a volunteer survey cannot be compared to a mandatory one, effectively rendering the new data unusable.
Another former head of StatsCan, Ivan Fellegi, also testified Tuesday.
He said privacy fears were unwarranted because there has not been a single case of a person's identity being released by StatsCan.
The two former chief statisticians said the new volunteer survey would be biased because certain groups of people -- such as aboriginals and low-income Canadians -- would be underrepresented.
In his testimony, Clement repeatedly argued that Canadians should not face the threat of jail time or fines for not completing the long-form survey.
However, opposition members questioned why the government would keep the potential punishments in place for those who fail to comply with the short version of the mandatory census and the 200-question agricultural census.
Clement responded that the long-form survey is far more intrusive and Canadians should not be forced to fill it out.
"This reasoned and responsible approach is about finding a better balance between collecting the necessary data and protecting the privacy of Canadians," Clement said.
"I ask this simple question: who do you want to decide under what circumstances you are subject to jail -- your duly elected representatives, or someone else who is not accountable to you?" he added.
The minister did not answer when asked how many Canadians have been fined or spent jail time over the long-form survey.
The opposition accused the Conservatives of "manufacturing a crisis" over the census.
"The fundamental difference between us and you, is we expect that the industry minister make his decision on fact, and not on urban myth or what you hear on talk radio," New Democrat MP Charlie Angus said to Clement.
While the government says many Canadians agree with their move to scrap the survey, the privacy commissioner's office has said it only received three complaints in the last decade.
Clement has maintained that the data garnered from a volunteer census would be effective. However, according to news reports he was told otherwise, and virtually all statisticians interviewed on the matter have said a volunteer census reduces the value of the data.
As of 2011, Canadians will no longer be required to complete the long-form census, which 20 per cent of the population normally had to fill out. Replacing that is a volunteer survey sent out to 33 per cent of homes.
The switch from the mandatory long-form census to a voluntary survey will cost the federal organization about $30 million. About $5 million will be spent to mail out the survey to 60 per cent more households and up to $25 million to encourage public participation.
Don Drummond, a former chief economist with TD Bank, sits on a national advisory committee for Statistics Canada appointed by the industry minister and said they were neither informed nor consulted on the census decision.
"We think there are a number of ways to address the concerns that government has put out there without abandoning the survey," he said, suggesting the jail sentence could be excised.
Fellegi also suggested later Tuesday that the government should experiment with a voluntary census before its implementation.
"The whole statistics profession is united in Canada and in the United States in saying that this is potentially very seriously biased, biased in the sense that it doesn't reflect the Canadian reality or any other country's reality," Fellegi told CTV News Channel. "Now, having said that, let's see if there are ways to get around it by more intensive follow-up, more effort at publicity and so on. Let's see if we can mitigate those problems. But let's not rush into it precipitously without seeing what we are buying."
Fellegi noted the census is used "for a vast number of hugely important decisions on which billions of dollars are spent."
The Tory move has been widely criticized by a number of groups who use the census data such as banks, social services, provincial governments and charity and religious groups.
Drummond noted that the U.S. once dropped the mandatory survey for a volunteer one and had a drop of 40 per cent in completion rate.