Researchers, public officials happy long-form census to be reinstated

Newly-minted Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains announced Thursday morning that the Liberal government would be reinstating the mandatory long-form census for 2016.

And many researchers, public servants and economists rejoiced – if our interview subjects were any indication.

“It’s fantastic,” said Cory Neudorf, chief medical health officer at the Saskatoon Health Region.

“It’s a good day for science,” said Paul Fleiszer, Manager of Surveillance and Epidemiology at Toronto Public Health.

“We’re very pleased that one of the first actions of this new government is to listen to local government and reintroduce the long-form census,” said Raymond Louie, president of Canadian Federation of Municipalities.

“I’m very impressed that it was the first order of business for the new government,” said Armine Yalnizyan, senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

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What to do with census data

Long-form census data can be used in a variety of ways by a variety of people, said Yalnizyan. “It isn’t just researchers. It’s people who want to put in infrastructure – where is it needed? It’s people that provide not-for-profit services who want to follow where the need is and how the need is changing. It’s for businesses that want to figure out where is the most fruitful place to market their product or service.”

Census data can have effects on public well-being. For example, during the H1N1 flu outbreak, Toronto Public Health officials used data from the long-form census to more effectively target their vaccination campaigns to the most vulnerable populations.

In Saskatoon, said Neudorf, officials studying long-form data noticed that unemployment was higher among Aboriginal groups. So, they created an employment program in conjunction with the local tribal council, Metis nation and employers to try to fix the problem.

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Long-form census data is also important for evaluating policies and seeing if they are having the intended effect, he said. If you’re hoping to alleviate poverty in a given area, learning whether poverty rates are higher or lower than before will tell you if your initiative was a success, he said.

Of course, not everyone loves the idea of a mandatory long-form census.

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Back in 2010, then-Industry Minister Tony Clement defended the government’s decision to cancel the mandatory long-form census, saying that there were privacy concerns.

“I’ve heard from Canadians who are concerned about other questions, like whether someone in the household has a mental or physical incapacity, they’re concerned about questions about the characteristics of their commute to work,” he said, according to a CBC report.

And not everyone wants to fill it out – long or short.

A Toronto woman refused to fill out the short-form census because it was processed by U.S. military contractor Lockheed Martin. She went to court over the issue but was not jailed.

Neither Bains nor Family and Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos addressed concerns about what penalties people would face for refusing to fill out a mandatory long-form census.

“The law is the law,” Bains said.

The penalty for refusing to fill out the census or knowingly giving out false information is a maximum $500 fine or maximum three months in jail, according to the Statistics Act.

Unreliable data

The 2011 National Household Survey had problems with data reliability, mostly because far fewer people filled it out, since it wasn’t mandatory.

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“The key thing about the NHS is we don’t know who didn’t respond. We don’t know the attributes of the people who didn’t respond,” said Yalnizyan. “We know that a whole bunch of people didn’t respond. We know that there were areas where Statistics Canada blacked out data because response rates were so low that it wasn’t reliable to talk about what was going on there.”

This meant that data in many areas, such as different neighbourhoods in cities, was simply unavailable. In Saskatoon, officials tried to compensate by doing some of their own survey work but it was expensive, said Neudorf – as much as $10,000 to $12,000 for a single survey, which he said is “beyond the capacity” of many local governments.

Rural areas also lacked the resources to do their own survey work, said Louie.

And while it’s hard to know for sure who wasn’t responding, it’s likely that they included low-income people, young people, and recent immigrants, said Louie. “We’re missing data now on some of the areas that were of highest concern to us in the past.” So, they couldn’t tell whether conditions were improving.

Although with a new long-form census in 2016, that data will once again be available, there will always be a blip on the record in 2011.

“I think we should just look at 2011 as a stroke,” said Yalnizyan. “We had a stroke in 2011. We can’t use that data, except from the short form.”

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“We’re always going to have this blank spot,” said Neudorf.

Still, there’s a bright side, according to Fleiszer. “The data gap would have become a data ‘chasm’ had there not been a return to the long-form.”

Note: Story updated with more information on penalties and privacy concerns

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