Tag Archives: census

The Government admits the voluntary Long Form is bunk

Yesterday, in response to a legal challenge from the Federation of Francophone and Acadian Communities of Canada Minister Clement announced the government would shift questions regarding the French language from the voluntary long form to the mandatory short form of the census.

Specifically these questions would move:

1) Can this person speak English or French well enough to conduct a conversation?

2a) What language does this person speak most often at home?

2b) Does this person speak any other languages on a regular basis at home?

This was done allegedly after receiving “new” advice from the new Statscan head which advised that having these questions in the voluntary form would not satisfy the government’s obligations under the Official Languages Act.

Of course, my friend points out that by moving these question the government is admitting that data collected by the voluntary form is essentially useless. It certainly isn’t good enough for the government otherwise… why not leave it on the voluntary form? In short, the minister just admitted that the long form, for which we are going to spend over $130M dollars to collect data, is for intent and purposes, useless.

This of course runs counter to the claims the Minister has been making all along that the data would still be sound.

It also begs the question of what other obligations the government has that might not be met. Legislation around disabled Canadians comes to mind, as of course do immigrants and first nations, all groups that we will know significantly less about. Once again, good public policy is based on having sound data. It would be nice if the government at least acknowledged this.

Update: Turns out the National Statistical Council (who normally advises StatsCan on these issues but which has been cut out of the loop on the issue of the long form) has come to the same conclusion.

2nd Update: In the ongoing – we are an international laughing stock – part of the census story, Nature, one of the two most preeminent science and research peer review journals in the world has published a scathing editorial piece about the Long Form Census decision. This is equivalent to the international research community pointing at Canada and asking “why do you want to go back to the dark ages?” It’s a question that – as a passionate believer in effective public policy – I’ve been asking myself as well.

How not to fix a mistake: How Clement's just dug a deeper hole

Faced with a lawsuit from a Francophone group opposed to the changes to the long form of the census the government has decided to shift questions on francophone skill from the now voluntary long form to the mandatory short form of the census.

The government hopes that this will placate angry francophone voters. The reality is that it will probably make many Canadians more upset.

Now the public gets to see that:

a) It is completely obvious that the Government did not think this policy through – so much so that it must now make changes on the fly

b) That the only way to be heard by this government is to take legal action

c) That the government is willingly ignoring the innumerably other stakeholders like the federal ministries, the provinces, cities, plus 300+ NGOs, business groups, religious organizations, etc… that are negatively impacted by this decision

d) That their goal is to destroy the census and that the actions today were about accelerating that process, not consulting or listening to Canadians

Of course, the repercussions continue to pile in. Even some hard core conservative commentators think that Minister Clement has embarrassed himself and seriously damaged his career, and polls continue to show the Conservatives have slumped significantly. The most damning piece in those polls however is hidden in the find print, not only have the conservatives slid double digits, but they are not the second choice for most Canadians, so even if people do change their minds, decisions like this make it harder to imagine they’ll go conservative.

More evidence that StatsCan disagreed with Clement (aka Helping @kady out)

Over at the CBC the ever resourceful Kady O’Malley has posted documents from Statistics Canada surrounding the decision to make the long form of the census voluntary.

She’s starting to notice some interesting bits, here’s two I saw that she might want to add to the list.

First, there are two lines written by public servants that seems to run counter to Minister Clement’s defense of eliminating the long form last week

There is this statement referring to both the short and long form of the census:

Census information is used in planning schools, community health services, housing needs, daycare and emergency services and other important services for our communities.

Worse still, this next one refers explicitly to the long form (renamed the National Household Survey or NHS in this memo):

The NHS questionnaire will cover topics such as language, immigration, Aboriginal peoples, mobility, ethnicity, education, labour, income and housing.

The information in the NHS will provide data to support government programs directed at target populations. Information from the NHS will also support provincial/territorial and local government planning and program delivery.

So here is an official government memo that appears to run counter to Minister Clement’s argument last week that the only special interests were benefiting (and were thus opposed) to changes in the census. As we see here (and as I argued last week) the biggest users of this data are government who use it to ensure that programs (say for the elderly) are targeted effectively and so tax dollars used efficiently.

More importantly, the document seems to recognize that the provinces/territories and municipalities are huge stakeholders in this process – wouldn’t that suggest they should have been consulted before hand?

Indeed, Kady points this out in her piece by highlighting a comment that vainly tries to raise the flag that “stakeholders” (read other ministries, the provinces/territories, municipal governments, the bank of Canada, the list could go on for about 300+ organizations) should be consulted.

The other interesting piece from the documents that I noted was this hilarious comment (comment number 7) of which I’ve taken a screen shot.

I love the comment! “If this that important why not mandatory?

Ah the lonely voice of reason, hidden in a comment bubble of a MS Word document.

Huge credit to Kady O’Malley for doing the hard work of getting these documents and for being a grade journalist and posting them online. If you do link to this post, please also link to hers (again found here).

The New Tall Tale of Tony Clement

“Yeah, there are groups that are upset. … Hey, listen, they had a good deal going,” Mr. Clement said Thursday following a meeting with fellow MPs in Ottawa.

“They got good, quality data and the government of Canada was the heavy. We were the ones who were coercing Canadians on behalf of these private businesses, or other social institutions, or other governments and provinces, for this data. We were the ones threatening Canadians with jail times or with large fines.”

– Minister Clement yesterday

Yes, Clement’s story about the census has changed again (here are the previous stories).

So which “groups” are we talking about. Yes, you’re mind may go to the hundreds of charities and non-profits, religious organizations, businesses that have spoken out. That is certainly who Minister Clement wants you to think about.

But, as I’ve said repeatedly, the biggest user of census data is not these groups (although Canadians will miss their services too).

The biggest user is… Government. And the group that will suffer the most will be Government (and by proxy, Canadians, who can expect a less effective government as a result).

So, think of the biggest user is groups like Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (the kind of people you want to be effective when your country is still shedding jobs from a recession), Environment Canada, Health Canada, etc…

And of course, the biggest second users of this data are the Provinces.

The third? The cities!

Also note that in each of these cases the Federal Government charges for this data so no one is getting a free ride financially. This is in contrast to many other governments, like the United States federal government, which makes its census data available for free.

So let’s be clear, this isn’t about the minister taking on every religious organization in the country, most of the non-profits and many, many businesses. It’s about blinding government.

Your Government *did* just get dumber… (that was fast)

Want to know who the biggest user of census data is? Government. To understand what services are needed, where problems or opportunities arise, or how a region is changing depends on having accurate data. The federal government, but also the provincial and, most importantly, local governments use Statistics Canada’s data every day to find ways to save taxpayers money, improve services and make plans. Now, at the very moment that governments are finding new ways to use this information more effectively than ever before, it is being cut off.

This is a direct attack on the ability of government to make smart decisions. It is an attack on evidence-based public policy. Moreover, it was a political decision – it came from the minister’s office and does not appear to reflect what Statistics Canada either wants or recommends. Of course, some governments prefer not to have information; all that data and evidence gets in the way of legislation and policies that are ineffective, costly and that reward vested interests (I’m looking at you, tough-on-crime agenda).

I wrote this on July 6th at the very beginning of the census scandal. What’s amazing is the short period of time it took for it to take on reality.

This week in a trainwreck of a press conference that pretty much every media outlet (save the ever loyal National Post) has mocked, Stockwell Day showed what the world of post-evidence based public policy will look like.

And what does it look like? Like a $5.1-billion a year increase in spending on prisons for a country with a declining crime rate in which 94% of Canadians survey feel safe.

Here is a scheme that only becomes defensible once you get rid of the evidence. Why? Because once you do that you can just make stuff up. Which is pretty much what the minister did. Take a look at John Geddes beautiful article which outlines how the Minister mislead the public about jail terms for criminals who conduct home invasions (they’ve gotten longer, not shorter).

Of course, for Conservatives the whole reason for getting rid of the census was that it was supposed to curtail big government. Stephen Taylor – Conservative blogger and cheerleader – says as much in his National Post Column. The beginning of the end of the Canadian welfare state. What was his line? “If it can’t be measured, future governments can’t pander.” It took about 9 days to disprove that thesis. A $5.1-billion dollar a year increase to create prison capacity for a falling crime rate is the case in point. Turns out even if you can’t measure it you can still do something about it. Just badly.

This isn’t the end of big government. It isn’t even the end of pandering governments. It’s just the beginning of blind government.

As an aside the people who should be most scared about this are the provincial governments. They just got made blind and didn’t even ask for it. It is also obvious that the Feds are going to push all sorts of spending on to them (like on prisons) that they didn’t ask for and don’t need. If they were smart, the provinces that have spoken out on the census (all of them except Alberta, BC and Saskatchewan) should announce they will conduct an independent census using the long form. This way they’ll actually have data to push back against the (now blind) federal government with. Better still, the provinces could license the aggregate data to make it free for everyone… except the feds, who when they come asking for the data (which of course they will) can be charge a big fat licensing fee. Perhaps a post worth fleshing out.

And now, the international laughing stock phase of our debate…

And now it has just become depressing.

The international media has picked up on the census debate and they’re just mocking it.

There is this priceless quote in a New York Times article:

“I wouldn’t call this political interference,” Professor Prewitt said. “I would call this government stupidity.”

Yes, the beauty for all of America to read from Kenneth Prewitt the former director of the United States Census Bureau and now Columbia University professor.

So, in the space of 1 short year our government has gone from model regulator of the banking industry to world laughing stock on policy. If only it ended there.

The Wall Street Journal – that left wing rag owned by that hippy Rupert Murdoch – has a piece as well. It opens up its article on the subject with a sly:

The government of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is under fire from a range of opponents for an unusual privacy initiative—making participation in his country’s census largely voluntary.

Even the Christian Science Monitor pokes fun at the decision.

Interestingly, even as people outside the country are starting to take notice, apparently the rank and file Conservative MPs continue to believe this story will blow over:

“It’s just another dead news-cycle story,” said one Conservative MP. “Most people will look at it, and say, what’s the difference?”

Ah, there is nothing like relying on the ignorance of Canadians to inspire confidence in leadership. This from a party who roots are allegedly in believing that the Canadian public has a way of learning about things and then forming judgments that are none too pleasant. Especially, when they think politicians are trying to pull a fast one.

Given that a diverse coalition of forces never before seen in this country has assembled in opposition to this idea, such a view smacks of arrogance. Possibly even hubris. Indeed, it is the same time of arrogance that the Conservatives have, for so long, claimed distinguished them from the Liberals. The kind of hubris that leads to decisions that wind up putting plans for a fall election on hold…

And yes! I do look forward to a day when I won’t write about this. Sorry about this folks… just sad to see billions upon billions of dollars of Canadian of taxpayers money spent over the last 100 years, and a multibillion dollar asset, destroyed by a government that doesn’t want reality to interfere with the decision making process. I promise this will be the only post on the census this week (barring some dramatic news).

David Akin: Live by the poll, Die by the…

The other week David Akin penned a commentary piece about an Ipsos-Reid poll that showed Canadians were evenly split about the census issue. It was trotted forward as proof positive that this was a non-issue that the press was blowing out of proportion.

Well, things have changed.

A more recent Angus-Reid poll shows that the numbers are shifting. Those opposed to the government’s decision (47%) has stayed constant but, in contrast to the poll Akin cited, Canadians have possibly become more aware of the issue and support has dwindled to 38% per cent. But dig deeper and the story is gets more interesting. Only one-in-four Canadians (24%) agree with the Conservatives assertion that the Long Form Census is intrusive and 58% think it yields data that is important to make policy decisions in all areas of public service, and should remain mandatory.

But wait for it… even among conservatives there is little agreement with the government. Only 31% of conservative votes agreed that “The long form census is intrusive and Canadians should not be forced to answer it” whereas 58% agreed with the statement that “The long form census yields data that is important to make policy decisions in all areas of public service, and should remain mandatory.”

And, to project into the future, things are not likely to get better. Most premiers have spoken out against the long form census decision and it will likely come up at an upcoming premiers conference. So, when citizens were asked:

“As you may know, some provincial premiers have criticized the federal government’s decision to eliminate the mandatory long form census, and the head of Statistics Canada has quit his post. Thinking about this, what do you think the federal government should do?”

the numbers jump even higher against the government’s decision with 52% saying the government should reverse and only 27% saying it should stay the course. And, once again, conservative voters are displeased with the outcome with 42% of them opposed to the governments decisions and 39% in favour.

If you are going to live by the poll, you must be prepared to die by the poll. So, given this new data, I’m hoping that David Akin will consider writing a new column about how this issue is starting to become relevant and may even be negatively affecting conservative poll numbers.

It was never about privacy…

So it is becoming increasingly clear that the census decision was never about concern over Canadians privacy, it was about dismantling the state’s capacity to engaged in reasoned, evidence-based public policy.

It is also interesting to see the government trot out new faces to give the same old flawed defence. Flaherty is now running around saying that Canadians will fill in voluntary census for ‘the good of the country.’ Of course, we already know what happens when you make the census voluntary. People don’t fill it out. The Americans tried it and it failed miserably. Of course, maybe Canadians are radically more patriotic than Americans. But given Flaherty’s new found confidence in Canadian patriotism, why assign fines to anything? I mean let’s not chase people down who refuse to pay taxes. Under the new Flaherty plan we can rely on us all doing the right thing out of love for our country.

I shudder to think that this man is our Finance minister. Clearly he doesn’t let facts and lessons interfere with his decision making. It all reminds me of a senior Bush official quote: “When we act, we create our own reality.” It’s a whole lot easier to delude yourself of that, when your get rid of the pesky facts that might show your “reality” is just an illusion. Sigh. Welcome to Libertarian fantasy land.

The good news is that more organizations are beginning to voice their discomfort. Some are even turning to social media. The Canadian Jewish Congress released a YouTube video explaining their opposition.

Better still, Canadians aren’t fools. A growing number or ordinary citizens are showing their disapproval. I think the Globe may be reaching in referring to this poll of senior citizens – but it does suggest that there are some upset people, even among the conservative’s traditional base. It will be interesting to see what happens around polling data over the coming weeks and especially into the fall as more and more Canadians find out about this issue.

The dangers of narrow cast politics

I am going to very substantially scale back my writing about this issue. I have reached the point where I am wasting my breath. My consolation is that many tens of thousands of Canadians now see this charade for what it is; that this has turned into a very, very bad day at the office for all concerned, including a few strategic geniuses who thought they could narrow-cast their way to electoral gain while the rest of the country missed this story; and that I have managed to shine a bit of a light on some of the most squalid behaviour I have ever witnessed in 20 years as a reporter.

The census?


This was written back on February 24th, 2010 in a fantastic post by Paul Wells about… the Rights & Democracy scandal. Today, the audit promised by the government on that organization has missed three deadlines and is still not been delivered. Today the organization remains in shambles: demoralized, frustrated and tarnished.

This, I fear, could be the fate of Statistics Canada. With the census (and a number of other survey) “a few strategic geniuses” thought that in the dead of summer, on the friday of a long weekend, they could kill something that has become core to legislation and decision making for every level of government, businesses, NGO’s, researchers and ordinary Canadians.

Today we know differently. With a Deputy Minister resigned, the media sniffing blood, the country up in arms and every major newspaper running damning editorials the only difference between the census scandal and the rights and democracy scandal is the size and scope of the impact.

Someone needs to tell the PMO that narrow-cast politics is dead. At least for this government There have simply been too many mistakes and the intelligence of too many Canadians has been insulted too many times to get away with it.

I hope that message gets through. I don’t know how many more times this government intends to narrow-cast a policy to try to pick up a few points with a vested interest group but I do know that we are running out of institutions we can’t afford to have destroyed.

The evolving tall tales of Minister Clement

It’s been fascinating watching the Industry Minister’s evolving fables around the decision to scrap the long-form census. Since the debate is now coming on three weeks I thought I might be fun to give it a little perspective to show how the Minister has been misleading, and in cases outright lying, to defend his case.

Tale 1: This decision has no implications

This was the first, and my favourite tall tale. People forget but at the very beginning of this debate the minister claimed the change would have no impact on the effectiveness of the census. In an online discussion with concerned Canadians who pointed out that the data from a voluntary long form census would be rendered useless because of selection bias, the Minister responded: “Wrong. Statisticians can ensure validity w larger sample size.” Of course, any first year undergrad student will tell you, this is not the case. Fortunately, Stephen Gordon a professor at the Laval University was on hand to set the record straight. (see debate to the right).

So the first story… this isn’t a big deal, the government has a way of working around this issue, please move on, nothing to see here… once debunked, tall tale number 2 kicked into gear.

Tale 2: Okay, it does have implications, but the cost is worth bearing because ordinary Canadians demanded it

Once the implications of the decision became obvious the government changed gear. Rather than argue that this had no implications they shifted to claiming the decision was about privacy and that Canadians had been demanding the change. Sadly, no one has been able to produce any records suggesting this is the case. Opposition MPs can’t find any complaints. The Privacy Commissioner has had 3 in the last decade and the number has been declining over time. Statistic Canada’s review of previous census generated no such feedback from the public. The concern has never even been mentioned in parliament by any Conservative MPs.

As a special bonus, Minister Clement has been nicely misleading the public claiming he’s received dozens and dozens of complaints since making the announcement (note, not before). But, of course, if we are taking score since the announcement, there are now at least 80 “radical extremists” organizations like the Government of Quebec, The Canadian Jewish Congress, The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, The Toronto Board of Trade and the Canada West Foundation along with a petition of 7500 Canadians who oppose the Minister’s decision.

So Canadians have not been demanding this change…

Tale 3: Fine, StatsCan told us to do it

Once it was revealed that this was a bad idea, there is virtually universal opposition to it and that Canadians did not demand it, the strategy again shifted gears. Now there is a new tall tale: Minister Clement has been claiming “StatsCan gave me three options, each of which they thought would work. I chose one of those options, with their recommendation.” Relief! This was never the Minister idea. It was StatCan’s idea and the public’s concern and outrage shouldn’t be directed at the minister, but has the ministry. So wouldn’t it be great if they could defend the decision? Maybe make a statement explaining why the recommended it? Sadly, Minister Clement won’t let them.

However, some excellent reporting by Heather Scoffield of The Canadian Press reveals that actually Statistics Canada did not suggest this change. As she reports:

But multiple sources are telling The Canadian Press that is not exactly what happened. The sources say Statistics Canada made no recommendations and only came up with policy options because they were asked to do so by Clement.

And they say the data gathering federal agency did not specifically recommend going the voluntary route.

Rather, they suggested that either the status quo or the complete eradication of the long list of questions would be the better way to go, several sources said.

The option chosen by the federal cabinet was not at the top of the list of options, the sources said. Instead, StatsCan told ministers if they insisted on going that route, they would have to spend more money and dramatically increase the size of the survey in an attempt to get accurate results.

“It wasn’t recommended,” one source said bluntly.

Okay, so StatsCan isn’t excited about this idea and certainly didn’t recommend it. Indeed they recommended either the status quo or getting rid of it altogether. And that only after they were asked to address an issue that, well, wasn’t an issue in the eyes of Canadians.

My bold prediction on the next tall tale 4: Behold – the mass of Canadians who opposed (something about) the long form census

Having had the previous three tales exposed the government must find a new tact. My suspicion is that they will return to tall tale #2 but with a new twist. This was hinted at over the weekend by Maxime Bernier, who claims that as Industry Minister during the 2006 census, he:

“received an average of 1,000 e-mails a day during the census to my MP office complaining about all that, so I know that Canadians who were obliged to answer that long-form census — very intrusive in their personal lives — I know they were upset.”

Of course there is no record of this, and as Professor Stephen Gordon aptly notes, if this was the case why didn’t the Minister ensure that these concerns were reflected in the review of the 2006 census? It would seem that either there were not the quantity of complains Mr. Bernier claims or, as Minister, he didn’t take them seriously. I for one, believe there were a number of complaints (although not thousands). And that the Conservatives will even attempt to produce them in the hopes reporters will not read them and move on.

But here is the nature of this next tale. These complaints weren’t about the intrusiveness of Government, they were about the use of an American defense contractor, Lockheed Martin, providing the computer systems used to conduct the census to Statistics Canada. Most didn’t understand why jobs were being shipped to America. An even small number of this group was concerned privacy, but not from their Government, from an American defense contractor. So if you are a reporter and the Conservatives claim there were privacy complaints, be sure to dig a little deeper. There were some. Just not the complaints they claim.

One tall tale begets another, and in this case, I suspect we about to get another tsunami of them.