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Canada's stat crunchers join census fight

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.

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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.

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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.

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"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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Contributor

Brenda Bouw is a freelance writer and editor based in Vancouver. She has more than 20 years of experience as a business reporter, including at The Globe and Mail, The Canadian Press, the Financial Post and was executive producer at BNN (formerly ROBTv). Brenda was also part of the Globe and Mail reporting team that won the 2010 National Newspaper Award for business journalism. More

Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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