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Ottawa spent $1-million to test run census before abrupt Tory change

An employee makes his way to work at Statistics Canada in Ottawa on on July 21, 2010.


A million-dollar test run, privacy checks and extensive consultations on the 2011 census were all in place only a month before the Conservative government decided to scrap the long questionnaire this spring.

Internal Statistics Canada documents shed light on just how abrupt the decision was for the agency, which prepares for the census and analyses the data over a period of seven years.

A key part of the preparation was a test of the census project in May of 2009, which cost the government more than $1-million. Long and short questionnaires were sent to 110,000 homes in suburban Montreal, Quebec City and Red Deer, Alta., on a voluntary basis, to test the mechanics of the census process.

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A privacy impact assessment was conducted and cleared with the privacy commissioner a month later.

Consultations with federal departments on the questionnaire, and with other interested parties, had been going on since 2007.

All this planning was discussed by senior Statscan bureaucrats during a high-level meeting with then-chief statistician Munir Sheikh in March of 2010.

Mr. Sheikh offered no indication at the time, only two months before the axe would fall on the mandatory long-form census, that it would be replaced with a voluntary national household survey. Details of the meeting were among records obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

One timeline provided to civil servants at the meeting as part of a PowerPoint presentation showed they expected the government to publish the long and short census questionnaires in April or May.

Instead, cabinet waited until late June to publish only the short questionnaire. A note on the Statistics Canada website, which was not included in their daily news releases, indicated a voluntary survey would take the place of the long form.

The National Statistics Council, which advises the chief statistician, federal departments and even Statscan staff were not formally informed until two days later.

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The Conservatives have said they made the change after hearing in 2006 from an unspecified number of Canadians who were angry with the intrusiveness of the long form.

Industry Minister Tony Clement said the change was made once final deadlines began approaching for the 2011 census.

"I'll take responsibility for not raising it on October 30, 2008 when I was sworn in as industry minister. I can't reply to why it wasn't raised before that date, but certainly I think one's mind gets concentrated on this as you get closer to the census," Mr. Clement said last week.

"We had a few other issues that were occupying my time before that, like the world economic meltdown."

Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett, who is sponsoring a private member's bill to reinstate the mandatory long-form census, said the Tories should have consulted Canadians on the decision.

"If they believed the information was important and it was important to have integrity in being able to compare the census data, they would have redoubled their efforts in education, in consulting their stakeholders, not just this ideologically driven unilateral move catching all of the people who need the data off guard," Ms. Bennett said.

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Printing of the 2011 short census and the national household survey was scheduled to get underway last week.

With files from Dean Beeby

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