The census mess starting to hit the fan – Thanks @pmharper

Friday, 8 July, 2011

From CBC News “Census Woes” (after news of Royal Tour comes to an end),

“When the decision to scrap the mandatory long form census was originally made in 2010, many statisticians feared incomplete or compromised data.

As the summer’s final push to collect forms comes to an end, some are suggesting it could be worse than they thought.

Reports suggest that in previous years census workers would call up a household that had not filled out its mandatory long questionnaire, and then pay a visit – or even several – to make sure it was completed.

But now Statistics Canada is accepting incomplete forms without conducting a follow-up.

Don McLeish, president of the Statistical Society of Canada, says partial responses could cause problems in using the data.”

Census mourned on World Statistics Day – World Statistics Day and the Canadian Census

Wednesday, 20 October, 2010

CBC has an insightful piece, “Census mourned on World Statistics Day“.

Here is a serious and funny YouTube video that a group took time to create: World Statistics Day and the Canadian Census

Clarifying Harper government disinformation about census complaints

Tuesday, 5 October, 2010

The following two news reports and documents released via Access to Information Act clarifies some of Harper government’s disinformation about census complaints

- “Industry Canada queried Bernier census claims“, CBC News (emphasis added)

“An Industry Canada employee questioned Conservative MP Maxime Bernier’s claims in July that as minister he received about 1,000 complaints a day about the mandatory long-form census, internal documents obtained by CBC News show.

[...] Industry Canada’s “internal survey of correspondence did not show anything close to a thousand a day,” he wrote to Statistics Canada’s Connie Graziadei, adding in brackets “we got a standard 25-30 a year.”” [K comment: This, paradoxically, shows how important factual statistics collection is. Claim of 1,000 complaints a day with NO factual support of these complaints is another example of playing loose with facts at best and unethical behaviour at worst.]

- “Industry Canada’s query to StatsCan about Bernier claims on census complaints“, documents released to CBC News via the “Access to Information Act“.

- “Census change not about complaints: Bernier“, CBC News

Canadian census change challenge heads to Federal Court

Monday, 27 September, 2010

From CBC “Census change challenge heads to Federal Court” (emphasis added),

The Federal Court will hear a complaint Monday by a French-Canadian group that opposes the government’s move to replace the mandatory long-form census with a voluntary survey.

The Federation of Francophone and Acadian Communities of Canada has asked the court in Ottawa to void the new policy from Stephen Harper’s government, but it also wants an injunction that would keep the new voluntary national household survey from being distributed this year.

The federation, which has also filed a complaint with Canada’s official languages commissioner about the census change, argues that the government’s new policy violates not only the Official Languages Act, but also the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

I totally agree with this bit (emphasis added),

Our fear is that government will no longer have the information it needs to design and elaborate programs and services,” said Marie-France Kenny, the federation’s president.

This data is needed across the country,” she said. “We’re Canadian citizens. We’re not just French citizens, so of course we understand the need for this information for the entire country.

More news,

Group launches court case against census decision” Canadian Press

Census takes centre stage on heels of gun registry debate” TorStar

Census controversy in court” Toronto Sun

Draft bill to reinstate mandatory long-form census

Thursday, 26 August, 2010

More than 300 groups representing a broad spectrum of Canadian society have voiced opposition to a decision to make the census voluntary. The government says the long-form census will instead be sent to more homes but statisticians argue that the results inevitably be biased.” – Globe and Mail

- Liberals unveil bill to reinstate long-form census

- Liberals draft bill to reinstate mandatory long-form census

- Liberals plan to take census issue to Commons

- Liberals to table census bill

- The full text of the proposed bill is here. [HT Maclean's]

Census Madness: Are Minister Clement & Prime Minister Harper Mad?

Saturday, 14 August, 2010

As one depressed senior Conservative put it: “We do pick small hills to die on sometimes.”

After the recent objections by a wide range of Canadian groups (from charities to ethnic groups to business groups to municipalities) to the Harper government proposed census changes, I am shocked to read the news that the Harper government is not  willing to listen or change. It seems the government is only listening to lawsuit.

I am now wondering out loud if Canadians have to organize more lawsuits to force the Harper government to do the right thing? A government that will only do the right thing under the threat of lawsuits lead me to ask: Are Minister Clement & Prime Minister Harper Mad?

Lets hope there are wiser Canadians working on organizing the needed lawsuits to halt this census madness because census data are fundamental to good government. Governments come and governments go, but census affect this and future generations of Canadians for years to come.

Canadian democracy and good government depend on reliable census data that we can compare over the years.

Again, quoting a senior Conservative,

“We do pick small hills to die on sometimes.”

How Clement & Harper just dug a deeper hole – How not to fix the census change mistake

Wednesday, 11 August, 2010

David Eaves has written and excellent post “How not to fix a mistake: How Clement’s just dug a deeper hole” about the Harper government’s latest census changes (with videos). Have a read of the insightful post. I will quote three points in Dave’s post (emphasis added),

b) That the only way to be heard by this government is to take legal action

c) That the government is willingly ignoring the innumerably other stakeholders like the federal ministries, the provinces, cities, plus 300+ NGOs, business groups, religious organizations, etc… that are negatively impacted by this decision

d) That their goal is to destroy the census and that the actions today were about accelerating that process, not consulting or listening to Canadians

It is a sad day in Canada that Canadians have to resort to suing our own government to get them to do something right as simple and basic as census. Yes, the census! Something governments from different parties have been doing over hundred years!

P.S. I am putting Harper’s name on this one. There is no way, I mean NO WAY, Harper himself hasn’t personally cleared what Clement is doing today. So his name is on this one.

Census and good government

Wednesday, 11 August, 2010

I hope the MPs will stand up for Canada and send a strong message to Prime Minister Stephen Harper to tell him he is wrong about the census change and to reverse his decision. Sadly, I know my Calgary SW MP won’t.

Stand up for good government, MPs – It’s up to Canada’s opposition leaders to defend the long form’s integrity (emphasis added)
by Mel Cappe, Pierre Fortin, Michael Mendelson and John Richards
Published on Globe and Mail, Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2010 5:00AM EDT

Section 91 of Canada’s Constitution states, “It shall be lawful for the Queen, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate and House of Commons, to make laws for the Peace, Order, and good Government of Canada.”

If there is one overriding shared value among Canadians, it is a desire for good government. This does not mean we are indifferent to the Americans’ concern for “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It does mean we are prepared to incur certain obligations to enable good government. Among them is a willingness to accept mandatory participation in a census able to generate reliable information about Canadian social conditions. Information provided is confidential, and this confidentiality has never been violated.

For many decades, the census generated detailed information by way of a “long form” that a random 20 per cent of households are required to complete. The average family can expect to complete the form twice in a lifetime. In June, with no prior consultation, the government substituted a voluntary National Household Survey. As former chief statistician Munir Sheikh said at the time of his resignation, the data arising from the proposed voluntary survey will not be reliable.

Good government means different things to Canadians across the country.

It means the New Brunswick government must deliver high-quality school programs in two languages across Canada’s only officially bilingual province. Premier Shawn Graham has repeatedly said the census information is necessary for evaluating these programs.

It means the Quebec government must evaluate the location of new community health centres based on reliable information about location of particular populations. Read the rest of this entry »

Secret documents show Clement & Harper gov misled Canadians on census

Tuesday, 10 August, 2010

Thanks to an order by Commons committee (similar to those under ATI (Access to Information Act)?), there were a lot of census related secret documents between the Privy Council Office, Industry Canada, and Statistics Canada released yesterday that showed a clearer picture of what really happened behind the scenes. (note: the picture is still a partial one because of Harper government’s redactions under 21. (1)(a) and 69. (1)(a) & (g), etc)

StatsCan warned of poor census response rate” – CBC News (include a TV interview with Munir Sheikh)

Census Document Dump: Behind the scenes of a most unexpected public relations crisis – CBC Inside Politics Blog (contains raw ATI PDF docs, highly recommended if you like reading the sources)

Census Document Dump: Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold … – CBC Inside Politics Blog (contains raw ATI PDF docs, highly recommended if you like reading the sources)

Clement misled Canadians on census: secret documents – TorStar

“Large sections of the documents were blacked out. Liberal MP Dan McTeague, who requested the documents, said he has never seen such censorship of material for a Commons committee except on security issues. “This is a serious affront to democracy,” he remarked Tuesday.”

Feds tried to shape StatsCan census message – Canadian Press

“Liberal Industry critic Marc Garneau said it appears the Tories didn’t put much thought into their decision on the census until after the fact.

“It’s because of ideology. The Prime Minister or the prime minister’s office said I think I’m going to make a change here . . . and to heck with science,” he said in an interview.”

Clement tidied up census message for committee hearings, documents show – Montreal Gazette (emphasis added)

“Industry Minister Tony Clement was poised to admit to a parliamentary committee last month that Statistics Canada “recommended the status quo” on the controversial long-form census, newly released documents show.

But when Clement testified before the committee at the height of the controversy, he changed the draft “introductory remarks,” which had been prepared for him, and dropped direct reference to Statistics Canada’s opposition to the government’s decision.

Instead, under questioning, he said the agency “probably” would have preferred that the census remain the same.”

Ottawa was told of flaws in census plan, documents show – Statscan warned Tony Clement’s office that voluntary survey would yield low response rate [initial response rate of only 50 per cent] – Globe and Mail (emphasis added)

“Addressing his critics, Mr. Clement declared: “I would say to those who are the self-proclaimed experts on this, if you trust Statistics Canada why don’t you trust the option that they put forward to obtain the data that businesses and municipalities deem to be necessary.”

E-mails and memos also made public show Canada’s former chief statistician, Munir Sheikh, intended to publicly acknowledge shortfalls in the substitute voluntary survey on the day he ultimately resigned from the job. [...]

Mr. Sheikh, in an interview with CBC TV’s Power and Politics Tuesday, said the reliability of much of Statistics Canada’s work will suffer without a mandatory long-form census. “The census is a benchmark for a lot of the surveys we do at Statistics Canada. If we don’t have that benchmark, we really have no way of knowing whether or not the data produced even by those surveys is something we can trust.””

Why the Census Matters to the Canadian Jewish Congress

Monday, 26 July, 2010

For the record, why the Census Matters to the Canadian Jewish Congress. [via David Eaves]

Statscan cancels town hall on census 62 minutes before Chief Statistician speaks

Wednesday, 21 July, 2010

Munir A. Sheikh, Chief Statistician of Canada, had planned a 2pm town hall meeting with employees to address some of their questions and concerns about the recent changes to the census (including changing the mandatory long-form questionnaire to voluntary and its impact), to provide some clarity.

A call to Statscan’s press office this morning confirmed that the town hall was canceled via an internal email time-stamped at 12:58pm, only 62 minutes before the meeting was supposed to start and the chief statistician has a chance to speak for himself. Unfortunately, because the chief statistician reports directly to Industry Minister Tony Clement, Sheikh was not allowed to speak to the media in recent days.

Here are some questions Canadians like to know: Will Clement allow Sheikh to speak for himself or will Cement continue to gag Sheikh and not allow him to speak to the media?

According to a comment in CBC’s virtual town hall discussion about the census, here is the text of Munir Sheikh’s email to Statscan employees on the cancellation:

“In light of today’s media coverage, I am cancelling the scheduled Town Hall meeting. I am reflecting on my position and that of the agency and will get back to you soon.

See my previous report, “Voluntary Census long-form questionnaire: Wasting 35 years worth of Canadians’ census effort“.

See also Globe and Mail report, “Statscan cancels census town hall; agency chief ‘reflecting on his future’

[More to come.]

Voluntary Census long-form questionnaire: Wasting 35 years worth of Canadians’ census effort

Tuesday, 20 July, 2010

Statscan 2011 census

Statistics Canada and Census are not typical summer fireside chats topics but Industry Minister Tony Clement managed to create a firestorm around the 2010 Census by changing the long-form questionnaire from mandatory to voluntary.

Concerns & Oppositions

An ad hoc Census coalition of bankers, economists, medical professionals, academics, pollsters and other census users have expressed their collective concern in a coalition letter to Minister Clement, (emphasis added)

“We are greatly concerned about this decision [to replace the Census long-form questionnaire with a new voluntary questionnaire]. Loss of the long-form Census information will cause considerable economic and social costs.

In a phone interview with Census coalition spokesperson Mel Cappe (mp3) (streaming audio), former clerk of the Privy Council from 1999 – 2002, I chatted with Cappe about the process of picking the 2001 census questions and answers. And discussed his group’s concern of a break in the census data series if the filling of the census long-form questionnaire becomes voluntary.

Wasting 35 years worth of Canadians’ census effort

Cappe stated, “For the last 35 years, people have been filling out this long-form of the census in one form or another. And we have been doing this for over 130 years. And now from 2011 forward, we will not have a data point. That means that all those people who filled out the form in the last 35 years did so for nought. Because we won’t have the next point on the series.

How much time would filling the mandatory census long-form questionnaire take? Cappe explained, “20 percent of the population get asked every five years to fill out this form. […] That means once every 25 years, you got to spend about 30 minutes in answering 41 questions.” To most Canadian citizens, spending about 30 minutes once every 25 years is completely reasonable for the public good of Canada and a reasonable duty.

Impact on Canadians’ healthcare

Canadian Medical Association Journal editorial “Ideology trumps evidence with new voluntary survey” states, (emphasis added)

“[Information from the long-form census] provides accurate and reliable data on social trends and issues, including the determinants of health, such as the relationships among income, gender, education, region, work and other factors that influence access to care and health outcomes. In fact, the long-form census is the only source that brings all these variables together and enables researchers to investigate new ways of understanding the determinants of health.

Opposition from within Statscan

According to Globe and Mail’s “Clement accused of misrepresenting census impact – Statscan insiders say Industry Minister’s comments playing down effects of voluntary survey enraged staff“, (emphasis added)

Mr. Clement has said Statscan officials reassured him the agency can manage the 2011 census effectively without forcing some people to fill out the longer version of the form.

That’s not what Mr. Clement has been told, according to a source close to the story who asked not to be identified, and Statscan officials expect chief statistician Munir Sheikh to come to the agency’s defence by saying so. [K: I hope to see the chief statistician's expert view added in the public discussion real soon.] [...]

Don Drummond, a member of Statistics Canada’s advisory council, said “all of us were shocked” by the news that the mandatory long-form census was being abandoned.

The approximately two dozen members of the advisory council are appointed by the industry minister, and advise the agency on how better to carry out its mandate.

Mr. Drummond, who recently stepped down as chief economist of the TD Bank, said the council unanimously believed that abandoning the mandatory long-form census would skew the 2011 results, causing a statistical break with previous surveys that would it make impossible to read and project trends accurately.

Intrusive questions

To justify his decision, Clement claims some of the census questions are intrusive. But what he should have done was to change the wordings or simply rejecting the questions during the census questionnaire refining process (see 2011 Census content determination process on page 10 of the Census Content Consultation Guide (pdf)).

Provincial governments opposing decision to scrap long-form census in favour of a voluntary application

According to CTV News (with video, emphasis added),

The governments of Ontario, Manitoba, Quebec and Prince Edward Island have all come out against the idea, reminding Ottawa that data collected from the mandatory census enables them to draft policy and deliver services.

Canadians’ personal data collected are anonymous and protected by Statistics Act & Privacy Act

Cappe stated, “There has never been a case, in the history of Canada, in the history of Statistic Canada where someone’s personal census data has been released. All that is released are the aggregation by census track so they add them up.  [...] Statistic Canada has an unblemished record of keeping to themselves – private – all of the returns of the census.” So some of the questions may seem sensitive but they are never used to identified Canadian individually.

Anecdotal support vs. thoughtful statistical understanding

It is unfortunate to see Clement relying on anecdotal encouragement from supporters (via Twitter Julius, Adam, Patrick, Paul, Chris, Tyler + Elizabeth) instead of putting more emphasis on thoughtful statistical understanding of the long term negative impact his decision.

In response to this user’s tweet, Minister Clement tweeted back “Actually 168,000 felt strongly enough last time about mand long form to refuse on pain of jail. Yet that sample was deemed valid.” Census coalition spokesperson Mel Cappe, in response to Clement’s statement, suggested if Clement thinks prison sentence is too harsh, then may be a fine of $500 for non-compliant can be used. Have a listen to Cappe’s full response in my phone interview (mp3) with him.

Concluding thoughts

I think Cappe said it right and worth repeating here, “For the last 35 years, people have been filling out this long-form of the census in one form or another. [...] And now from 2011 forward, we will not have a data point. That means that all those people who filled out the form in the last 35 years did so for nought. Because we won’t have the next point on the series.

It should also be noted that many public and private surveys, including the important Labour Force Survey which tells us employment and unemployment figures in Canada, depend on a statistically valid set of Census of Population.

Now, I think it is safe to say most Canadian citizens, as a duty and for the public good of their country, won’t mind spending about 30-60 minutes once every twenty-five years to fill in a mandatory census long-form questionnaire.


Note: Repeated email questions and phone calls to Statistics Canada have not been returned at press time. It will be interesting to know what has Munir A. Sheikh, Chief Statistician of Canada told Minister Clement? Did the Chief Statistician actually tell Clement that there will be no negative impact by making the long-form voluntary? And previous census results will NOT be less useful as a result this change?


July 21 update:

- “In an op-ed for the Sun, Tony Clement manages to twice cite the fact that the long form census includes a question about the number of bedrooms in one’s dwelling.” This Macleans article explains some legitimate use of the bedrooms data: “… government planners and private developers to develop housing communities and projects … Provincial and municipal governments use this information to measure levels of crowding within households and to develop appropriate housing programs.

- Tony Clement answers questions from Globe and Mail in “Tony Clement clears the air on census”. Clement’s answers seem evasive and less than forthright to me.

July 21, 2010 10:48pm MST update:

- “Munir Sheikh, Canada’s chief statistician, resigns to defend integrity of 2011 Census

- “Canada’s Chief Statistician Resigns Amid Row With Government Over Census“, Bloomberg

- “StatsCan chief quits over census furor“, TorStar

- “Federal statistical folly in full view“, Globe and Mail Editorial

- “StatsCan head quits over census dispute“, CBC News

Canada’s mandatory long-form census – Flawed arguments for census changes

Monday, 19 July, 2010

For the record, I agree with the attached Globe Editorial. And I think it is perfect reasonable duty for one in five Canadian citizens to spend 20-30 minutes every five years to share information in an anonymous manner to facilitate government and business decisions. Tell Minister Clement what you think via twitter.

Quoting the editorial, “The elimination of the long-form questionnaire will result in losses across many areas of Canada’s public life, well described by academics and policy-makers.

Yet the federal government has yet to offer any reasons for getting rid of it that can stand up to scrutiny. And that is no basis for public policy of any sort.

Flawed arguments for census changes” (emphasis added)

- The elimination of the long-form questionnaire will result in losses across many areas of Canada’s public life. Yet the federal government has yet to offer any reasons for getting rid of it that can stand up to scrutiny.

From Monday’s Globe and Mail
Published on Sunday, Jul. 18, 2010 8:00PM EDT

The federal government has advanced a number of arguments to justify the abolition of the long-form questionnaire in the 2011 census in favour of a new voluntary “National Household Survey.” Each claim is flawed, faulty or incomplete, and together they display a misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of census-taking, and a worrying approach to governing.

Tony Clement has made three assertions or suggestions. The first is that the National Household Survey, to be sent to 33 per cent of households (the long-form questionnaire goes to just 20 per cent), will be just as accurate.

But while surveys are inherently statistical, the census is primarily a counting exercise.

The census has its own sampling procedures to ensure data accuracy. But those problems can be managed. According to a Statistics Canada technical report on sampling in the 2006 Census, “calibrating sample estimates to known population counts as part of the census weighting procedures helped to reduce the impact of biases.”

Voluntary surveys, on the other hand, are known to create much larger biases, with lower participation from the poor, the very rich and aboriginals. These generate results that do not reflect the population and require adjustments.

These biases are harder to detect without a good base of objective knowledge. Increasing the sample size, from 20 to 33 per cent, is irrelevant; cancelling the long-form census removes that objective base.

The long-form census also creates reliable data that is the basis for almost all other major sampling exercises in Canada.

Ivan Fellegi, chief statistician of Canada for 23 years, said that the sampling for the Labour Force Survey, which generates unemployment statistics, is based on long-form census data.

And if the long-form questionnaire is abolished, it will be hard to compare the data to past censuses.

In other words, the new survey cannot use the same standards as past censuses, nor can it deliver the same level of data accuracy, and it compromises future surveys.

Mr. Clement has stated that the long-form census questionnaire has generated many privacy complaints.

Canada’s Privacy Commissioner has received just three complaints in the last two censuses. The House of Commons has no record of any petition tabled by an MP about these concerns. Nor has it come up in private members’ statements.

In addition, governments still do mandatory “intrusive” surveys. The Labour Force Survey is mandatory. The Canada Revenue Agency requires disclosure of all sources of income.

And completion of the 2011 Census of Agriculture is also mandatory; failure to participate can lead to a fine or prison.

That census requires a report on the area of fields irrigated, the number of live honeybee colonies hosted and the incurred cost of veterinary services, to name just three examples, of every farm in Canada.

Finally, Mr. Clement said that Statistics Canada vouches for this new process.

However, the agency itself refused to go on the record in support, saying, “Statistics Canada is not in a position to answer questions on the advice it gave the Minister in relation to recent statements the Minister has made.”

If it fully supports the measures, Statistics Canada should be forthcoming with its explanation and analysis.

Taken together, the government’s arguments fail to justify the course chosen.

These are not abstract considerations. The elimination of the long-form questionnaire will result in losses across many areas of Canada’s public life, well described by academics and policy-makers.

Yet the federal government has yet to offer any reasons for getting rid of it that can stand up to scrutiny. And that is no basis for public policy of any sort.


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