Not any more

Canada’s stat crunchers join census fight

In Canada on August 3, 2010 at 08:48

Canada’s professional statisticians are stepping up the fight to bring back the mandatory long-form census, even as the government stands firm on its decision to scrap it.

With less than a week before the replacement document goes to print, the Statistical Society of Canada has launched a petition it hopes will persuade the Harper government to change its mind, based on what it says is growing public dissent both in Canada and worldwide.

The petition began circulating over the long weekend at a gathering in Vancouver of more than 5,000 statisticians from around the globe, where Canada’s census issue was a hot topic.

While the government appears unbending in the census debate, some are holding out hope for a compromise.

“My sense is that there is room to move,” said Don McLeish, president of the Statistics Society of Canada, which started the petition. “The world, in fact, has spoken on this issue.”

Mr. McLeish said his professional society is pushing for both the mandatory and voluntary census forms to be distributed next year, so that the government can study the difference between the two, and make its decision based on the results.

“Then they will know what the biases are. Otherwise, it’s totally untested,” Mr. McLeish said.

There are already a few petitions calling for the government to reverse its decision. This one is targeted at international number crunchers who worry about the implications of Canada changing its system in their own countries.

At this week’s Joint Statistical Meetings conference in Vancouver, there was much-anticipated support for census data and its relevance.

“The challenge is getting reliable information,” Keith Hall of the U.S. Bureau of Statistics said during a panel discussion.

The debate also included Munir Sheikh, the former head of Statistics Canada who resigned last month to protest Ottawa’s decision to kill the long-form census. He declined to comment further on the issue, or a possible compromise, citing confidentiality oaths he took in his former job.

“The simply reason for my resignation is that I cannot see myself surviving the role of chief statistician of an agency whose reputation and integrity come into doubt,” Mr. Sheikh told the audience, repeating a statement he made before a parliamentary committee last week.

After the meeting, he told reporters: “I think there will be a time when I am able to comment … but right now, honestly, I can’t say anything.”

The proposed census changes have been widely criticized by economists, educators, city planners and religious groups. At the hearings in Ottawa last week, two former chief statisticians for Statistics Canada testified that the quality of data will suffer if the census becomes voluntary.

Industry Minister Tony Clement, whose portfolio includes Statistics Canada, said the government believes some questions on the mandatory long form invade Canadians’ privacy and people should not be threatened with jail terms for not filling it out.

He stood by that position on Monday through spokesman Erik Waddell, who said the Conservatives feel they’ve arrived at the appropriate compromise.

“I think we’ve already presented a pretty reasonable position: and that’s if Canadians wish to give the information to the government – to census takers – then by all means they can,” Mr. Waddell said. “We just think it’s absurd that anyone should be threatened with jail time or fines, and we’re not going to budge on that.”

Mr. Waddell suggested that the opposition parties are not interested in compromise. He noted that during a Commons Industry committee meeting last week, the Conservatives’ political rivals signalled they are only interested in restoring the previous census regime.

“When that committee meeting ended, it was the opposition parties who banded together and voted in favour of there being only one option – and to their mind that’s full reinstatement of the mandatory long form, including jail fines and monetary penalties,” Mr. Waddell said. “And if that’s their position, we can’t support it.”

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  1. The irony is, who would have thought the Liberals would put themselves in the position of being FOR anything relating to mandatory disclosure to the state of so many individual facts about your personal, unique situation in life, under threat of fine and jail? The only thing more surprising about this is that the Conservatives are against it (the state using their power over individuals to get the information they want in such an institutionalized way), and want to voluntarily give up some of the governments power in this case.
    Even Jack Layton and the NDP are uncomfortable with this, as he suggested a compromise would be to remove the threat of jail time in this situation. But isn’t that all Harper and the Conservatives were trying to do in the first place?
    So the NDP and the Conservatives are against jail time, and the Liberals are for fines and jail time and mandatory disclosure.
    It’s either very ironic, or Harper has once again manipulated things, and tricked the Liberals into defaulting themselves into this postion.
    I know the information provided by a mandatory census is valuable to all sorts of people and groups and levels of government. I’m sure there are many things that are valuable in this world that all sorts of people and groups and levels of government want, but how exactly are these groups going to obtain these things? Voluntarily? How about if that doesn’t work?
    But maybe this is different because it’s neccesary for the good of so many different groups and people. The good of the group trumps the rights of the individual.
    Well I’m sorry but if I’m in a group I know whether I feel comfortable or not, and if I don’t feel comfortable in a certain situation and the good of the group argument comes up, in retrospect I question what boudaries were broken or do I have any rights in this situation.
    I’m asking the statisticians and economists and politicians to keep their unwanted, uncomfortable questions off of me thank you.

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