CRDCN letter to Minister Clement - Census long-form questionnaire
9th July 2010
Dear Minister Clement
We write on behalf of the Canadian Research Data Centre Network to express our concern about the recent decision to cancel the mandatory long-form questionnaire as part of the 2011 Census of Population. Our Network gives researchers access to detailed national and provincial data – including census data – in secure laboratories on 24 university campuses across Canada. We were surprised, therefore, by media reports that this decision was made without consulting Census data users - not only the university researchers we represent, but also municipalities, provincial and territorial governments, NGOs, social and cultural associations, as well as private sector marketing and business firms and organizations. We urge you to seek such consultation and reconsider this
Data from the Census long form are uniquely important. They function as the basic source of information about the population of Canada and the benchmark against which all other data are measured and evaluated. The long-form questionnaire is a primary source of knowledge about such matters as language, education, income, housing, geographic mobility, and ethnicity. It is widely used by researchers to enhance our understanding of Canadian society; by city planners to make policy decisions on a neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood basis; by private industry to decide about business location and marketing, and by federal and provincial government departments to assess
which policies to pursue and how to allocate budgets.
Not only is the combination of questions on the long form Census unique, it is the only large-scale survey to gather detailed information on all household members. The questions asked in other Statistics Canada surveys overlap parts of the Census content, but the sample sizes in these surveys are not nearly large enough to provide the level of detailed information that census users require about the characteristics of people living in each province and in municipalities both large and small within those provinces.
As reported in the Canadian Press of July 1st, the (only) justification for doing away with the longform census questionnaire is that “many Canadians had complained of [its] coercive and intrusive nature.” It is true that some people have made such complaints. It is also true that, as with tax forms which are also mandatory, the Census asks something of Canadians in order to achieve a public good. The vast majority of Canadians accept this and readily comply. Fortunately so, as the usefulness of the long form Census depends critically on the exceptionally high response rate – over 95 percent, the highest of any G20 country – that is only possible with a mandatory questionnaire.
Replacing it with the voluntary National Household Survey, as has been proposed, is not an acceptable alternative. The average response rate to voluntary Statistics Canada surveys is of the order of 70 percent. The problem is that the 30 percent who do not respond are likely to be drawn disproportionately from the most vulnerable groups in society, including aboriginal peoples, persons with weaker language skills, newly arrived immigrants and the low income elderly. Young people, especially in the critical years of post-secondary education and entry into the labour force, are also under-represented. Our understanding of these groups would be diminished, and policy measures
would be based on much weaker evidence.
Data confidentiality is taken extremely seriously by Statistics Canada. Over 3000 researchers have worked with confidential master files from previous censuses, household surveys and other sources in our Research Data Centres across Canada. To access data in these secure laboratories, researchers must submit to a personal security check by the RCMP, and sign a confidentiality agreement that could result in criminal prosecution if information is divulged.
As a Network, therefore, we are well-placed to assess both the confidentiality of Statistics Canada census and survey data and the “public good” they offer. Without a single breach of confidentiality in the Network’s ten years of operation, research carried out in our centres has offered invaluable insights into countless issues at the heart of Canadian society and provided planners and decisionmakers with the information they need to help ensure that tax dollars are used for the public good.
The importance of this unique and internationally recognized cornerstone of knowledge about our society and the basis it provides for evidence-based policy cannot be stated strongly enough. A publicity campaign to raise awareness of the benefits to Canadians of this information would be a far more effective way of dealing with complaints than abolishing the Census long-form questionnaire, and we would be more than happy to participate in such an undertaking.
_____________________________________ Raymond F Currie, Executive Director Emeritus
_____________________________________ Robert H McNutt, Executive Director
_____________________________________ Byron G Spencer, Chair, Executive Committee