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Witness compares veracity of census data to information obtained through torture

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

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Coercing people to answer personal questions in a mandatory long-form census produces unreliable results, in the same way confessions obtained under torture are suspect, a former deputy health minister from B.C. told MPs.

Lawrie McFarlane was one of several witnesses called before a Commons committee Friday, including a farmer and a Calgary talk-radio show host, who were sympathetic to the Harper government's decision to scrap the compulsory long-form census.

They were outnumbered by economists, researchers and social policy groups, invited on the recommendation of opposition parties, who decried the move and said a replacement voluntary survey will yield a skewed demographic picture of Canada.

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Mr. McFarlane, who also once served as chief executive officer of a Saskatchewan regional health authority, said Canadians lie on the census. He retold a story, cited by the Prime Minister's Office earlier this summer, of how 21,000 Canadians registered Jedi as their religion in the 2001 census.

He said it's understandable Canadians lie on especially sensitive census questions, such as mental health, child rearing habits or the amount of their savings.

"What you can guarantee by compulsion is a response: You put a gun to somebody's head, they're going to say something," Mr. McFarlane told the House of Commons industry committee.

"It's almost like the argument for water boarding: if you water board enough people, they will tell you something," Mr. McFarlane said.

"The question is are they telling you something that's reliable? Are they telling you something that's usable?"

He said Ottawa has to find ways to get accurate information from Canada in a way that doesn't erode "the relationship of trust" between a government and its citizens.

Liberal MP John McCallum called the waterboarding argument "a bit over the top" and said he feels it's contradicted by statistics experts who have testified that census data is more accurate and dependable than what's yielded by voluntary surveys.

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The opposition Liberals plan to press their attack on the census changes this fall by sponsoring a private-members' bill to reverse the measures. This legislation is unlikely to make it into law but its deliberation will ensure the Tories are forced to repeatedly defend themselves.

Calgary radio talk show host Dave Rutherford, who's called the census controversy overblown and media-manufactured, also spoke at the committee Friday at the recommendation of Conservative MPs.

The Alberta media personality professed surprise at being the only journalist called to testify. "I am here because I have expressed an opinion which is in support of the government's action [but]I don't want to be considered a cheerleader for the government," he said.

"I agree with the democratic process in this country ... and because I participate in democracy, I am here," he said. "But other than that, I don't know why I am here."

Tory MP Mike Lake told Mr. Rutherford, "We think it's important that you are here."

Citing privacy concerns, the Tories are replacing Canada's compulsory long-form census - mailed to one-fifth of households, with an optional survey sent to one-third - with a voluntary approach expected to yield a far lower response rate and poorly measure minorities.

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The opposition majority at the Industry committee succeeded in passing a motion calling on the Conservatives to reinstate the long-form census.

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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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