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EU officials decry Canada's census decision

The European Union's leading statisticians are decrying the Canadian government's decision to use "dormant legal powers" to scrap a mandatory detailed census of Canada this past summer, saying it undermined the independence of Statistics Canada.

The mention of the Harper government's census controversy in the European Statistical Governance Advisory Board's annual report is a measure of widely it was noticed when the Conservatives intervened to eliminate a census that was previously compulsory for one-fifth of Canadian households.

Citing concerns that the existing system was too invasive and coercive, the Tories replaced the long-form census with an optional survey that is being sent to one-third of households - one that Statistics Canada acknowledges will not generate as detailed or accurate a measure of this country.

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In its 2010 report, the European Statistical Advisory Board says the independence of every country's statistical agency should be enshrined in law and cites Canada as an example of what can go wrong if governments are legally allowed to interfere in census-taking.

Statistics Canada is not independent in Canadian law and the Harper government reminded agency staff of this as it made the changes. "Sometimes, some of them like to think they are - but that doesn't make it so. They report to a minister," Mr. Clement noted in July.

For decades prior, however, Statistics Canada had operated free from government interference and statisticians grew to assume decisions on the census were beyond the reach of politicians.

"In a few countries history and tradition are considered to induce de facto professional independence, even if the legislation does not fully comply with the code. This was also assumed to be the case in Canada but proved wrong," the European advisory board wrote. "Examples like this in the recent past highlight the need to align national legislation," it said.

It noted that former Statscan chief Munir Sheikh resigned during the controversy.

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About the Author
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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