Statistics Canada never recommended census changes, multiple sources tell CP

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Embattled Industry Minister Tony Clement says the decision to replace next year's mandatory long census with a voluntary questionnaire stemmed from recommendations made to him by Statistics Canada.
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.
That's partly because Clement's choice to make the questionnaire voluntary while increasing the number of households it is sent to is far more expensive and less efficient, the sources explained.
That's not how an increasingly defensive Clement presented his case this week.
"StatsCan gave me three options, each of which they thought would work," Clement said Friday. "I chose one of those options, with their recommendation."
It was the second time in two days that Clement had hinted Statistics Canada was championing his choice.
"They gave me options and we chose one of those options," he told reporters in Ottawa on Thursday.
"This is a methodology that Statistics Canada offered to us and if it's good enough for Statistics Canada, it should be good enough for some of our critics."
The Prime Minister's Office has now waded into the debate, making it clear that the census decision was a political one, made by cabinet to protect Canadians' privacy.
"Canadians don't want the government at their doorstep at 10 o'clock at night while they may be doing something in their bedroom, like reading, because government wants to know how many bedrooms they have," said spokesman Dimitri Soudas.
Clement's office refused to release the details about the options and recommendations put forward by Statistics Canada, citing cabinet confidentiality. Similarly, Statistics Canada posted a notice on its website saying it would not comment on the issue.
However, the former chief statistician, Ivan Fellegi, says he finds it difficult to believe that the officials he knows and respects would recommend the government ditch the mandatory form.
"I can't for a moment believe that Statistics Canada would have put its stamp of approval on the quality that this voluntary survey will result in," Fellegi said in an interview Friday.
As recently as the end of March, Statistics Canada was going ahead with its plan to use the traditional long-form census form.
In his annual address to employees, chief statistician Munir Sheikh celebrated the fact that the federal cabinet had finally approved a funding formula that would keep the long-form census on a solid footing for 2011 and in the future.
"I am pleased to announce that this funding problem has been resolved and, and that we now have a funding strategy for the long-form census (2B) that will apply to 2011 and future censuses," Sheikh said, according to notes for his address at the end of March 2011.
Sheikh has not commented publicly on the new questionnaire, and insists on taking all questions in e-mail form via the agency's communications office.
The public backlash against the cabinet decision made public at the end of June has been harsh, and growing steadily. Critics say the voluntary questionnaire will miss certain sectors of Canada's population, and will not be detailed enough to allow for local data analysis. Municipalities, social scientists, interest groups, economists and businesses have complained that they will be left without reliable information.
Now, provincial governments are mobilizing against the federal government's decision.
Manitoba, for example, says it needs the data from the long-form census now more than ever, as it deals with changing demographics and a volatile labour force.
"We need more information, not less," said Peter Bjornson, minister of entrepreneurship, training and trade. "This is a very important issue for us, that the government revisits this."
His government sent a letter to Clement on July 2 asking him to reconsider.
Similarly, the Quebec government says it is adamantly opposed to Ottawa's decision. Culture Minister Christine St-Pierre said this week that the long census is an "essential tool" for policy-makers and researchers, and she can't understand why Ottawa would do away with it.
Prince Edward Island has also called on Ottawa to reconsider.
And government officials in Nova Scotia, Ontario and British Columbia say they are looking closely at the decision to see how their own policy work will be impacted.
Clement has said the decision to axe the long, mandatory questionnaire was inspired by complaints from Canadians about being forced to answer intrusive, personal questions under penalty of jail time.
He argues the voluntary questionnaire will still give researchers and policy makers the information they need, but won't force people to answer if they don't want to.
Clement found one new ally on Friday. Niels Veldhuis, chief economist at the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, says the voluntary option deserves a second look.
"The bottom line is, I think Canadians need to have a second look at the long-form census, and think about whether the government should be forcefully extracting such information," Veldhuis said. "I don't think there's any rationale."

Organizations: Statistics Canada, Canadian Press, Fraser Institute

Geographic location: Ottawa, Canada, Manitoba Quebec Prince Edward Island Nova Scotia Ontario British Columbia

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