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The Globe and Mail

Court rejects francophone census challenge

Truth, a statue at the entrance of the Supreme Court of Canada, is seen with the Peace Tower in background in Ottawa on May 7, 2010.


A francophone group has lost its legal challenge of the government's decision to scrap the mandatory long-form census - just as printers get ready to churn out millions of voluntary questionnaires.

Federal Court Judge Richard Boivin dismissed the application for a judicial review of the decision, submitted by the Federation of Francophone and Acadian Communities.

The federation had argued that replacing the mandatory long-form census with a voluntary survey would yield less reliable information about francophone minority communities, and thus hamper the government's ability to fulfil its obligations under the Official Languages Act.

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They asked the court to act quickly - Statistics Canada had said this week was the latest it could wait before giving the go-ahead for printing questionnaires.

Judge Boivin did deliver his decision within only a week of hearing arguments, but it was not what the group had hoped to hear. The judge said the Official Languages Act does not mandate which tools the government must use when supporting and serving linguistic minorities.

"(The Act) doesn't require whatsoever the collection of data by way of the mandatory long questionnaire," Judge Boivin wrote in his decision, released Wednesday.

Marie-France Kenny, president of the federation, said she was disappointed with the ruling. The organization has not decided whether to appeal the decision.

A number of First Nations groups have launched their own bid at the Federal Court to review the census decision.

Judge Boivin backed the government's argument that it is too early to pass judgment on the usefulness of the voluntary survey. Industry Minister Tony Clement has emphasized that measures will be taken to ensure as many Canadians as possible fill out the survey, to increase the reliability of the information.

"In the court's view, the only conclusion that can be drawn ... is that there's uncertainty around the degree of reliability data that will come from the NHS (National Household Survey)," Judge Boivin wrote.

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"This court is not convinced that the data from the NHS will be so unreliable as to be unusable."

The Conservative government argues that it has struck a balance between the need for data and concerns expressed by some Canadians that the census process was too invasive and unnecessarily coercive.

It has added questions about the use of official languages to the short-form census, which remains mandatory, in the hopes of addressing some of the complaints by francophone groups.

Official Languages Commissioner Graham Fraser recently wrote to a number of those organizations, telling them he did not have the power to alter cabinet's decision on the census questionnaire.

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