Not any more

Tories can’t silence census critics with changes

In Canada on August 12, 2010 at 20:17

OTTAWA — The federal government still has a court challenge on its hands over cancelling the long-form census despite its latest efforts to quell the controversy, and the Conservatives quickly rejected a call Thursday to make its replacement survey mandatory.

"We will not make the National Household Survey mandatory," Erik Waddell, spokesman for Industry Minister Tony Clement, told Postmedia News.

The new voluntary NHS will be sent to 4.5 million homes next year instead of the mandatory long-form census, which the Tories have scrapped because they said it was too intrusive and coercive.

The regular census — the short form — is still mandatory, but the government on Wednesday announced plans to drop jail time as a penalty for refusing to complete it and other compulsory questionnaires, such as the agricultural census and the labour force survey.

No Canadian has ever gone to jail over the census.

Critics and users of the data have been imploring the government to reverse its decision on the long-form census because they say a voluntary survey is not an equitable replacement in terms of the quality of data.

A French-language group that launched a court battle over the decision won a victory Wednesday when a judge agreed to fast-track its case. The Federation of Francophone and Acadian Communities of Canada says the information from the long-form census is needed to determine where the federal government is required by the Official Languages Act to offer services in French.

The group wants government to reinstate the long-form census and asked the court to hear arguments on an expedited basis so there is enough time to make adjustments to the 2011 census format.

A federal court judge sided with the group and set the next court date for Sept. 27. Hours later, Clement announced the government will take two language-related questions from the new voluntary survey and put them on the mandatory short-form census.

The minister said it was simply a "prudent" move to ensure the government meets its obligations under language laws.

The concession, however, has not deterred the French group from pursuing its legal action.

"We were very pleased that the court saw the urgency of the matter and we are going ahead," Suzanne Bosse, executive director of the federation, said Thursday.

The government did not consult with the group about moving the language questions to the short census and Bosse said she only learned of the change through the media.

Bosse said she had to limit her comments because the legal proceedings are ongoing and wouldn’t say if the government’s move failed to satisfy the group’s demands.

The government could ward off the court battle, said Bosse, if it made a proposal to the group on how to resolve the issue.

So far, however, there has been very limited response to the group’s requests to meet with government officials as the controversy has unfolded over the summer, she said.

Ian McKinnon, chair of the National Statistics Council, also offered his view on how the Tories could put the whole census debacle behind them.

"Making the NHS mandatory would have the same effect in terms of data collection as having the long-form census," McKinnon said.

The advisory body still prefers the government to go back to the old long census, but a mandatory NHS would satisfy some of the critics, he said.

McKinnon also suggested that Wednesday’s change in tactics is an acknowledgment from the government that the data from a voluntary survey isn’t as good as from a mandatory one.

"The government, I think, has recognized that the voluntary survey can’t provide the robust data that we need," he said. "I can think of no other logical explanation for including the official languages questions on the mandatory instrument, the short form."

Statistical Society of Canada president Don McLeish agreed, saying the government may have opened up yet another can of worms.

"If they realize this on other issues as well, then ultimately other questions will be transferred to the short form," he said.

© Copyright (c) Postmedia News


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