Come to your census, expert tells Tories

OTTAWA – The head of Canada’s national statistics organization, which counts many Statistics Canada employees among its members, says "no statistician in their right mind" would have signed off on changes the Conservatives made to the census, despite Industry Minister Tony Clement’s suggestions that Statistics Canada recommended the move.

"I think I can say quite safely that nobody in our organization has ever suggested that substituting a voluntary survey for the mandatory long form of the census could in any circumstances provide the same kind of information, no matter how much money is spent or how large a mail-out sample is attempted," says Don McLeish, president of the Statistical Society of Canada and a professor at the University of Waterloo. "No statistician in their right mind would believe that this provides an equivalent information base."

Ivan Fellegi, who worked at Statistics Canada for 50 years – including 23 years as chief statistician – until his retirement in 2008, echoes McLeish’s skepticism that this decision came with the blessing of the agency’s number gurus.

"Every ounce of my professional knowledge, which is certainly the same professional knowledge that is very widespread at Statistics Canada, tells me that this is statistically absolutely wrong," he says. "For the life of me, I can’t believe it. It’s just not something any responsible profession statistician would have said."

The Conservatives have scrapped Canada’s long-form census and replaced it with a voluntary survey – a move made with no consultation or advance warning, and which has received near-universal criticism since it was made public three weeks ago. Making the census voluntary will seriously bias the results, Fellegi says, and changing the methodology so drastically destroys the ability to track changes over time – something that would concern any statistician.

McLeish says arguments from Clement and other Conservatives that a voluntary census will provide representative results if it’s sent out to more people betray "a misunderstanding of statistics that’s fairly common." Certain groups are simply less likely to complete a voluntary survey and increasing the sample size doesn’t fill in those gaps, he says, comparing the government’s assumption to belief that a bridge is stronger if it’s built with twice as much concrete, no matter how shoddy the design.

In recent days, Clement has suggested that making the long-form census voluntary was an option approved by Statistics Canada, encouraging critics of the move to "trust" the agency.

"StatsCan gave me three options, each of which they thought would work," he said on Friday. "I chose one of those options with their recommendation."

Statistics Canada is no longer permitted to grant interviews and is responding to questions only via e-mail, but officials have said repeatedly that their role is simply to provide options at the government’s request and to execute orders, with the decision resting with cabinet.

"What really bothers me is the possibility of the government hiding behind the good reputation of Statistics Canada but at the same time muzzling the agency," says Fellegi.

Meanwhile on Monday, chief statistician Munir Sheikh sent an e-mail to all staff, inviting them to take part in a town-hall meeting on Wednesday, dubbed "2011 Census: Meeting the challenge."

"Since the announcement, this new format has received widespread coverage in the news media," he wrote. "I am aware that this situation has generated questions."

Sheikh asked employees to submit questions via e-mail in advance "in order to ensure I address those issues of most concern."

Also on Monday, a broad coalition of experts and organizations requested a meeting with Clement to discuss the census changes and their impact. Representatives of the United Way, Canadian Institute of Planners, Canadian Labour Congress, Canada West Foundation, Canadian Public Health Association, Canadian Association of University Teachers, Canadian Council on Social Development, Canadian Economic Association and Toronto Board of Trade signed the letter, along with Mel Cappe and Alex Himelfarb, former clerks of the Privy Council, Canada’s top civil servant post.

"We are all users of information derived from the census long-form questionnaire, and we would appreciate the opportunity to explain to you how the loss of these data would impair our operations," they wrote. "For many of us this would mean a less efficient use of money we collect from Canadians, in some cases via government grants."


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