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Opposition, provinces fail to stir Tories from census position

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.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A Hail Mary appeal by Canada's two biggest provinces and a House of Commons vote have done nothing to budge the Conservative government from its controversial position on the long-form census.

The three federal opposition parties united Wednesday to pass a Liberal motion to bring back the mandatory long census, minus the threat of jail time for those who ignore it. The vote passed 152 to 141.

Quebec and Ontario also tried to ratchet up the pressure with formal letters to Industry Minister Tony Clement, asking him to reverse the decision to replace the census with a voluntary survey.

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Mr. Clement had already said his government would not heed the motion in the Commons, and briskly dismissed the missives from the provinces.

"It's the same tune that they've had," he said. "They're users of the data, they like having the data. They like having the government of Canada enforcing through criminal penalties, fines and imprisonment.

"I understand their position, but it is not in my view a fair and reasonable position. Our position is the fair and reasonable position."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper echoed that during Question Period in the House.

"The way to deal with the public, in this day and age, is not to threaten them with fines and jail terms or taking away their employment insurance as some in the opposition have demanded," he said.

Harper and Clement both ignored the fact that all opposition parties support eliminating the threat of jail terms for those who fail to complete the census. They also failed to note that the short-form census, the Labour Force Survey and the Census of Agriculture still retain their threat of fines.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff lashed out at Harper's "stubbornness."

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"This is just not good enough," he said. "This kind of stuff is exactly why people are beginning to think this government has lost the capacity to listen. And it's lost the humility to understand when, excuse my language, it's screwed something up."

Provincial officials had hoped to forge an all-party front on the issue over the summer and then again this month. But sources said when it became clear western provinces weren't prepared to sign on, Ontario and Quebec forged ahead.

Even though Mr. Clement has repeatedly rebuffed efforts from more than 300 organizations and dozens of municipalities to reinstate the mandatory census form, the provinces believe there is still reason to hope for a reversal, the sources said.

Ontario's minister for training, colleges and universities, John Milloy, said his government spends billions on post-secondary education and training, based on researched gleaned from long-form census data. Statisticians have warned that voluntary surveys do not produce as much reliable data.

"I think we have to continue to put it on the record and I think we have to continue to make the public aware, that this may seem like a technical question, but in fact, as I say, we're talking about billions of dollars and programs," Mr. Milloy said Wednesday.

By cancelling the mandatory longer form, the federal government is undermining its own efforts to lower unemployment, the letter from the provinces says.

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It points to an advisory report on labour market information prepared for the federal and provincial governments last year. That advisory board was led by noted economist Don Drummond.

The report argued that by making better use of local and regional data, unemployed workers could be encouraged to travel to where the jobs are. It urged governments to enhance the quality of their data with Statistics Canada's help.

Without information gleaned from the long-form census, statisticians will have no way to reliably carry out the recommendations, the letter says.

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley argued the government has made progress on labour mobility using other initiatives.

"We're doing these things without using census data that's now 10 years old," she told reporters.

The Federal Court is also examining a request to reinstate the long-form census. The Federation of Francophone and Acadian Communities asked for an expedited review of the decision, arguing the federal government would not be able to fulfil its duties under the Official Languages Act without the data from the long questionnaire.

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