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Sheikh shares his disdain at census changes with Commons

Munir Sheikh, former chief of Statistics Canada, takes his seat at a House of Commons committee hearing looking into changes in the long-form census last Tuesday.

Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

Munir Sheikh says he stepped down as the head of Statistics Canada because the public was being led to believe that he agreed with the Conservative government's decision to scrap the mandatory long-form census.

"If you go back to the day that I resigned, there were stories in the media, particularly in The Globe and Mail, which had a headline on page four that said the chief statistician supports what the government is planning to do," Dr. Sheikh told the Commons Industry Committee on Tuesday.

The Globe story quoted Industry Minister Tony Clement saying he had been told by Statistics Canada that "if we went to a voluntary census and if we did the measures that they recommended, that we could mitigate and/or eliminate the legitimate concern [about]going from a mandatory to a voluntary census." Mr. Clement had also told The Globe he assumed Dr. Sheikh found the change acceptable.

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No statistician would have made such a recommendation, said Dr. Sheikh, who struggled with his emotions as he addressed the committee. "It really cast doubt on the integrity of the agency," he said. "And I, as the head of that agency, cannot survive in that job."

The explanation from the man who held the top job at the statistics agency for two years before his resignation last week was reinforced by other witnesses, including Dr. Sheikh's predecessor, Ivan Fellegi, who told the committee "any voluntary survey is intrinsically biased."

Toward the end of the day, the opposition-dominated committee voted in favour of an NDP motion to reinstate the mandatory long-form census. The government quickly countered by pointing out that the motion was nonbinding.

"I cannot support the opposition's belief that Canadians not wishing to answer these questions are criminals," Mr. Clement said in a statement released Tuesday evening. "It is truly regrettable that the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois will not take a reasonable approach to addressing personal privacy rights of Canadians in the pursuit of invasive data."

Mr. Clement, whose portfolio includes Statistics Canada, told the committee that his government's decision was driven by the belief "that a balance must be drawn when the government is collecting data under the threat of fines or jail or both," as well as the "intrusive nature" of the long-form census.

In fact, the committee heard repeatedly that no Canadian has ever gone to jail for refusing to complete the long-form census. And the questions on the draft version of what will now be called the 2011 National Household Survey have been approved by the federal Conservative cabinet.

The survey, which was released in draft version on Monday, is almost identical to the 2006 long-form census. Questions about unpaid work have been dropped. Others about commute times, childcare support and subsidized housing - which have been labelled intrusive by the same cabinet ministers who approved them - have been added.

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In addition, at Mr. Clement's direction, respondents will now be asked to reply "yes" or "no" to the question of whether they want the information made available to the public after 92 years. The previous census required them to tick a box to indicate that it could be revealed at that time.

Mr. Clement made it clear that the Conservative government took full responsibility for the decision to go to a voluntary survey.

"For some Canadians who may be new Canadians, who have escaped from hideous regimes, they see this as a very real threat," said Mr. Clement. "One census taker told me the story about how people were in tears, they were absolutely terrified of being deported if they didn't fill out the long-form census."

But Dr. Sheikh and Dr. Fellegi were equally adamant that a voluntary survey will not work.

"What makes the bias particularly worrisome in this context is the fact that most users are not interested in a snapshot, they are interested in how things have changed since the last time they were measured," Dr. Fellegi said. If two surveys are conducted in different ways, he said, "the results become basically not useable for that purpose."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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