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Renowned Canadian economist Sylvia Ostry.

Donald Weber

Canada's former chief statistician and one of its internationally renowned economists Saturday described as "shocking" and "ridiculous" the federal government's decision to scrap the mandatory census long form.

"I think it's ridiculous the government would intervene and tell Statistics Canada how to collect its information," Dr. Sylvia Ostry told the Couchiching Conference on public affairs after being presented with an award for public policy leadership.

The Conservative government's action, she said, undermined the global stature of Statistics Canada which has been praised consistently as one of the leading statistics agencies in the world. "The whole thing is shocking," she said.

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Dr. Ostry was chief statistician of Canada from 1972 to 1975, and was later deputy minister of consumer and corporate affairs, chair of the Economic Council of Canada, head of the department of economics and statistics of the Organization of Economics Co-operation and Development, deputy minister of international trade, the sherpa for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney at international summits, and a member of the influential Washington-based financial policy body, the Group of Thirty.

The government has been widely criticized for the decision - taken by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in December and made public in June - to make the census long-form a voluntary rather than mandatory document.

Canadian economists have been virtually unanimous in arguing that making the long form voluntary will undermine the reliability of the data used for research and planning by public institutions such as hospitals, governments, businesses and scholars.

The census long form is given to one in five adult Canadians every five years.

The prime minister's office has said the government does not believe it should force Canadians to provide confidential information on threat of fines and jail as penalty for refusal.

Jail terms have never been imposed, and Dr. Ostry said that, when she was chief statistician, she instructed her officials to be flexible and sensitive with people who refused to fill out the form.

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