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Premiers seek difficult census compromise

Canada's premiers plan to come up with their own ideas for improving the mandatory long-form census without scrapping it altogether at their annual meeting next week.

But it is not at all clear that the country's 13 provincial and territorial leaders will be able to reach a consensus, given that Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is deeply skeptical that there is room for a compromise.

"I don't know what compromise means. I'd have to see," Mr. McGuinty told reporters on Wednesday. "There are modest compromises, then there are reasonable compromises and there are some times when a compromise is unacceptable."

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The Harper government is under pressure from Canada's two largest provinces to reverse its controversial plans to replace the mandatory census with a voluntary survey.

Quebec has joined Ontario in a formal call for Ottawa to reverse itself, saying the change could hobble the province's ability to craft public policy. Quebec Finance Minister Raymond Bachand emerged from vacation to write a letter to Industry Minister Tony Clement, who is in charge of Statistics Canada, urging him to reconsider after an in-depth analysis by the province.

Quebec has its own bureau to analyze statistics, but it relies heavily on Statscan to collect raw data. The Institut de la statistique du Québec says its scientific analysis of the proposed changes found a voluntary long survey would damage the "reliability, comparability and coherence" of data.

Mr. Bachand attached the institute's findings to his letter.

I think it would be a mistake on the part of the federal government to make the change it's proposing. I hope they're giving it a rethink. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty

"According to the scientists at the Institut de la statistique, the replacement of the long-form census with a voluntary questionnaire risks depriving Quebec of an important source of information for the development, monitoring and evaluation of public policy, whether it be in social or economic areas," he wrote. "As the minister responsible for the Institut de la statistique, I am worried and I ask you to take into account the concerns of our scientists."

Mr. Bachand's department revealed he sent the letter, dated last week, after the Parti Québécois accused him on Tuesday of doing nothing to protect the integrity of the census and, by extension, Quebec's social programs.

Ontario's deputy finance minister, Peter Wallace, said in a letter to Statscan last week that the provincial government is troubled that such a significant decision was taken without consulting the provinces and territories. He said the proposed change is likely to have "negative, long-term consequences" for some government programs.

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Mr. McGuinty echoed those concerns on Wednesday, saying the Harper government needs to be careful about abandoning the collection of the type of information that is vital to help the provinces set spending priorities. There is a direct relationship, he said, between the quality of the decisions his government makes and the information collected in the long-form census.

"I think it would be a mistake on the part of the federal government to make the change it's proposing," he said. "I hope they're giving it a rethink."

There is no indication the federal government is prepared to back down, even though the move has been widely condemned and has led to the resignation of Chief Statistician Munir Sheikh.

But it was Mr. Clement who helped fuel the race to find a compromise by expressing a willingness this week to listen to what others have to say about the collection of census data.

Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger, who is hosting next week's meeting in Winnipeg, said the census is not on the formal agenda, but he expects his provincial and territorial colleagues to raise it.

"Manitoba believes the information is important, no question," he said in an interview. "But there are ideas … on some of the ways to move forward … on how to make things work better."

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About the Authors

Karen Howlett is a national reporter based in Toronto. She returned to the newsroom in 2013 after covering Ontario politics at The Globe’s Queen’s Park bureau for seven years. Prior to that, she worked in the paper’s Vancouver bureau and in The Report on Business, where she covered a variety of beats, including financial services and securities regulation. More

National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More

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