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Provinces rally against Ottawa as anger over census mounts

Provinces are pushing back over the Harper government's controversial decision to scrap the mandatory long-form census, warning the move will undermine the accuracy of budget decisions and erode the ability to direct social programs to the most vulnerable.

The Ontario government is calling on Ottawa to reverse itself, saying in a letter to Statistics Canada that it is troubled such a significant decision was taken without consulting the provinces and territories. "This is likely to have negative, long-term consequences for some government programs," Ontario's deputy finance minister Peter Wallace warns.

Other provinces are also expressing concerns as the backlash over the move spreads far beyond researchers, social scientists, educators and academics. One exception is Alberta, which said it supports in principle the decision to remove penalties for spurning the long-form questionnaire - but will reserve judgment pending more details.

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Over the past week economists, former government officials, charities, doctors and educators have all stepped forward to declare how much the private and public sectors depend on the treasure trove of demographic details collected by the mandatory long form.

Now the matter threatens to become a debating point for the premiers when they gather on August 4 in Winnipeg.

"If the issue is still alive at the time that the premiers' conference starts, it would be a surprise to all of us if one or more premiers didn't raise it," Jim Eldridge, Manitoba's acting deputy minister of intergovernmental relations, said in an interview.

While all households must still answer basic census questions, Ottawa is replacing a compulsory list of 50-plus questions about home life, work and ethnicity - traditionally sent to one-fifth of Canadians - with a voluntary version mailed to one-third.

Industry Minister Tony Clement acknowledged Tuesday that if the government hadn't advanced the idea of scrapping the mandatory long form, Statistics Canada would have been "perfectly willing" to stick with the status quo.

But he said he's confident that surveying more Canadians via a voluntary long form - and advertising heavily to encourage responses - will "mitigate the risk" of the switch. These are recommendations Statscan offered after being asked what could be done to make it work, he said.

The Industry Minister has been challenged by unnamed employees at Statscan who say he is misrepresenting facts by implying that the agency and chief statistician Munir Sheikh are satisfied with how Canada is switching to a voluntary long form.

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But Mr. Clement said he believes that the head of Statscan finds the shift acceptable because it was the senior bureaucrat who came up with options on how to make the voluntary long form system work accurately.

"I am entitled to believe that when a deputy minister - in this case the chief statistician - gives me a set of options, he is comfortable with those options," the minister said.

Both he and Mr. Sheikh plan to issue statements Wednesday on the changes. "Munir wants to assure Canadians that Statscan is going to do its job - and [explain]the nature of what that job is - and then I will want to assure Canadians that we have confidence in Statscan."

Asked whether Statistics Canada is an arms-length agency able to call its own shots like Auditor-General Sheila Fraser, Mr. Clement says it's not.

"Sometimes, some of them like to think they are - but that doesn't make it so. They report to a minister," he said.

Indeed, under the Conservatives there's been an apparent shift in focus at the agency. One Statscan staffer said on condition of anonymity that it's moving toward more economic research, such as productivity, and away from social trends - reflecting the switch in leadership to Mr. Sheikh, an economist, from former head statistician Ivan Fellegi.

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Critics - and provinces - worry the next census will yield inaccurate results in part because needier Canadians won't fill out the voluntary long form. That would mean they would no longer show up in statistics.

"If the data are suspect or inadequate, then obviously that causes problems for the people who are elected to make the best possible decisions," Manitoba's Mr. Eldridge said.

Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said Tuesday that his province bases virtually every spending and tax decision on the information collected in the long-form version.

A spokesperson for Quebec Finance Minister Raymond Bachand said he is "deeply concerned" by the change.

Prince Edward Island Finance Minister Wes Sheridan said his government is worried the census data collected will end up distorting the real demographic picture in Canada.

"We have a lot of issues with it but the most important is developing social policy ... we'll get very skewed results," Mr. Sheridan said. "I expect our Premier will talk to these points at the meeting."

The Yukon government, meanwhile, predicted changes will cost it more than $1.5-million as the research needed for policy decisions is offloaded to the territory.

The Alberta government, however, said it backs the move, but wants to see details about how the quality and availability of data will be maintained - particularly so that it can still be compared to past records.

"We don't have a problem with removing threat of prosecution for the long form. We really don't. Quite frankly, it seems kind of heavy-handed," said Cam Hantiuk, spokesman for Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach.

With reports from Daniel Leblanc, Sean Gordon, Josh Wingrove, Oliver Moore and Ian Bailey

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About the Authors
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

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

Tavia Grant has worked at The Globe and Mail since early 2005, covering topics from employment and currency markets to trade, microfinance and Latin American economies. She previously worked for Bloomberg News in Toronto and Zurich, writing on mining, stocks, currencies and secret Swiss bank accounts. More

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