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Census Day, 2011 - dawn of a new information-gathering era

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Tuesday was Census Day, the yardstick moment at which the Canadian population is measured and quantified as it has been every five years since 1971.

This year is different, however. The detailed long form that used to be distributed to one in five households has been, for the first time, swapped for a national survey.

The switch stems from the Harper government's decision last summer to abolish the mandatory long form in favour of a voluntary survey. The move sparked anger from a range of groups who said the changes will deprive government and citizens of detailed information about the country's social makeup and eliminate the ability to track those changes over time.

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That decision has prompted various responses. The short form remains compulsory but the number of refuseniks now encompasses new parts of the social-economic-political spectrum - including educated professionals. Meantime, others who stand to gain from the filling out of the forms, such as the Manitoba government, are running public campaigns to try to boost response rates.

The biggest question is how the latest count could possibly be as informative and accurate as those in the past. Statistics Canada says it is doing its best while critics contend the endeavour is a waste of time.

François Dumaine, a program evaluator, is one of those critics. He uses detailed census data "daily" to help assess the efficiency of programs that target crime prevention, new immigrants and aboriginal communities. He said he won't fill out the mandatory short form, nor the voluntary survey, on principle - even if it means he winds up in the courts.

"I refuse to participate. … And I certainly have every intention of challenging it if I do receive the fine. I was asked to fill out the census, and this is not a census," said the Ottawa-based partner at PRA Inc. and past president of the Canadian Evaluation Society.

"Canada is a very complex society - we have very sophisticated programs and initiatives. But in order to do the job of planning, delivering, evaluating programs, you need state-of-the art policy making tools. The census is absolutely critical to that. And you don't play around for political reasons with that - it's the mother of all data."

Some are urging others not to participate. Hilary Campbell helps map out electoral boundaries and gives city councillors detailed portraits of various neighbourhoods as a planning technician in Halifax.

She filled out the short form. But she's refusing to fill out the national household survey and is publicly urging others boycott it.

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"The argument has been made that the household survey is an adequate replacement for the mandatory long form census - and I don't agree with that. I don't believe the results are going to be consistent," said Ms. Campbell, who added she is speaking for herself rather than her employer, HRM Planning Services. "Between apathy and lack of understanding, this survey will be ignored by the very people we need to know more about- the impoverished, the illiterate, the uneducated, the immigrant population, the working poor, the mentally ill, the seniors, the homeless - the list is endless."

Manitoba's government is taking the opposite approach, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to educate the public on why they should fill out the short form. Manitoba's basic message appeals to a sense of civic duty: It benefits everyone. Even the short form represents "an electronic library" of the community on age, gender and population density, said Wilf Falk, chief statistician at the Manitoba Bureau of Statistics.

Filling out the census bolsters community funding and planning, he said. Not filling out the forms hurts those flows. "For every person who is ultimately missed, Manitoba loses $40,000 in federal transfers - that would be equalization and health and social transfers - over a five-year period."

Many municipalities are urging Canadians to fill in the short-form census because it gives vital insights into household density, age groups and population numbers.

Statistics Canada is forging ahead. Canadians have 10 days to fill out the short-form census. If they don't, they will receive reminders in the mail and, by early June, follow-up phone calls from enumerators explaining why it's important. People who don't complete the short form face a fine of up to $500. The Conservative government has said it plans to eliminate the threat of jail time.

The voluntary survey will reach a third of Canadian households either online or next month by mail.

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The rollout hasn't been without hiccups. Completing the census in the North was delayed in several communities due to extreme winter conditions. Statscan has also had to delay distribution in parts of the Prairies that have been affected by floods, census manager Marc Hamel said in an interview Tuesday.

He is anticipating a 50-per-cent response rate for the national household survey.

The budget for the 2011 census is pegged at $660-million over a seven-year period starting in 2008. That is $30-million more than its original budget due to costs of extra printing, postage and other unexpected expenses relating to the new household survey.

Census collection has been part of Canada's history for the past 345 years. Statscan said it's putting every effort into producing results as good as possible this year. That includes training enumerators to explain the census's importance, and using information from the 2011 short form to point to where they need to drum up more responses for the household survey.

"We're giving everyone the guarantee that we're putting all of our know-how and expertise in trying to make this a good outcome," Mr. Hamel said.

It's too early to say what response rates are like, but Mr. Hamel said they'll have an idea by the fall. Census data will be released next year and results from the household survey published in 2013.

Many are already focused on the next census in 2016. Mr. Falk would like to see any short form and long form mailed out at the same time to avoid confusion and help boost response rates (he worries that by June, people won't get around to sending back the longer household survey).

Mr. Dumaine wants Statscan's status as an agency free from political interference clarified, and the mandatory long form revived. Ms. Campbell also wants it restored.

"I hope that the 2011 national housed survey is a colossal failure. I strongly believe that the mandatory long-form census needs to be reinstated in time for 2016, and this move for 2011 has done irreparable harm to the quality of the data that Statscan will get. And frankly, I believe our international reputation has been harmed."

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About the Author

Tavia Grant has worked at The Globe and Mail since early 2005, covering topics from employment and currency markets to trade, microfinance and Latin American economies. She previously worked for Bloomberg News in Toronto and Zurich, writing on mining, stocks, currencies and secret Swiss bank accounts. More

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