Thursday, May 05, 2011

After the election, more on Canada's census

In the aftermath of Monday's federal election in Canada, which not only saw the creation of a Conservative majority in the federal parliament but the emergence of the social-democratic as the Official Opposition (thanks substantially to the near-total collapse of Québec's federal separatist Bloc Québécois party) and the reduction of the Liberal Party to third place, many questions about the future policies of the new secure federal government have been raised. Some of these have to do with Canada's census, which (as I wrote here in February) no longer includes the more detailed long-form questionnaire as mandatory, threatening the utility of the census as a planning tool and the comparability of data sets. One junior Conservative parliament talked about getting rid of the census altogether; thankfully, if not altogether reassuringly, the Prime Minister's office contradicted the MP.

The Prime Minister’s Office said contrary to what the St. Catharines Tory MP told his local paper, the 10-question mandatory survey is not headed for the scrap heap.

“The short form census will remain as is,” PMO spokesman Dimitri Soudas said.

That may not be the end of the matter, however.

Statistics Canada itself is investigating whether to ditch or augment the mandatory short-form census in favour of alternatives such as data mining, chief statistician Wayne Smith said in a February interview with The Globe and Mail.

It was the Harper government who requested this review.

The Conservatives, who last year scrapped the mandatory long-form census on the grounds it was wrong to coerce Canadians into answering intrusive questions, have asked Statistics Canada to rethink the way it collects population data.

Both the 50-question long-form survey – which is now optional – and the short-form questionnaire that collects basic data are used by researchers, policymakers, economists and others to get a richly-detailed picture of Canada. These users complained bitterly about Ottawa’s decision to make the longer survey voluntary, warning it will erode the quality of data gathered.

[. . .]

After the PMO spoke out to quell confusion over the matter, the Tory MP later talked to the paper and said he’d been “unclear” in his comments.

He said he was merely talking about already-announced plans to remove threat of jail time for refusing to fill out the short-form census.

Mr. Dykstra said the short form and its basic questions would still remain mandatory.

“What I should have said was we were going to reduce the penalties. We couldn't because we had an election, but we will be introducing that at some point in the new parliament,” Mr. Dykstra told the Standard.

There's a minor movement afoot in Canada for census-takers to request that the long-form census be sent to them. Laudable, I guess, but the literal self-selectivity of this isn't going to help the census' accuracy.

I like what Frances Woolley wrote on a Globe and Mail blog about the importance of the census, not just as a planning tool but as a historical document.

In 1911, census data was collected by enumerators, who walked from house to house, knocking on each door. For each person in Canada, they collected just one line of information. Name, address, sex, relationship to household head. Date and place of birth. Racial or tribal origin, nationality and religion. Occupation, trade or means of living. Earnings, education, language and -- for reasons that no doubt seemed important at the time -- insurance coverage.

The Canadian and provincial censuses up to 1911 are now available on-line, as are censuses from the U.K., the U.S. and other countries.

A census form can bring your own personal history to life. No other kind of record will tell you how your family lived -- did the kids stay at home until they were thirty? Were your ancestors servants, or did they have servants? Were they rich or poor, educated or not?

That’s the reason I happily filled out my census form and answered yes to the question about releasing personal information. It’s a gift to my great-grandchildren.

But will my great grand-children care?

Most of the questions on the 1911 census are now asked on the new, voluntary National Household Survey. It will be sent out to about 4.5 million households in about four weeks time. If you’re one of those lucky households, you have a chance to leave a footprint, a time capsule, for future generations to find.

A typical Canadian, however, only has an opportunity to fill out the mandatory, short form census. It starts out by collecting the same information as the 1911 census – name, address, sex, relationship to “person 1” (households do not have heads anymore), age and date of birth.

The government needs this information to function effectively. For example, federal–provincial transfers for health care, education, and so on are based on the number of people in each province. The census is the way governments know how many people there are. Or, to take another example, our democracy is based on representation by population. Census information is used to draw up electoral boundaries between ridings. Basic demographic information is fundamental to the functioning of democracy.

How can people in a society know what's going on without knowing what the society actually includes?

1 comment:

Dwight Williams said...

If the movement to get the long-form census to an "available to everyone who wants/needs it" basis gets sufficient traction with the public, Parliament will have to at least openly discuss the idea. The trick, as you say, will be to ensure that enough of the public is willing to get into the habit of asking for the long-form version as a matter of routine. This can be done, but the methods of suasion will need to be worked out.