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

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

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

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

  2. […] Ideas Revolutionary: Voluntary Census long-form questionnaire: Wasting 35 years worth of Canadians’ census effort […]

  3. Chris says:

    What about freedom? I only saw an argument against someone complaining about the inconvenience. I’m talking about freedom in both the self-ownership sense (i.e. you don’t have a right to force me to do anything) and in the “how much does the government know about you for the upcoming Orwellian dystopia” sense.

    I think both angles bring important arguments to the table, but it always seems that this ideal of a “Civic Duty” barrels in and assigns moral obligations to everyone on the basis of arbitrary historical lines.

  4. kempton says:

    Freedom is not absolute. The privacy of our data is protected under the Statistic Act and StatsCan has never lost our data, so “Orwellian dystopia” is a bit an exaggeration.

    For a responsible government to make policy decisions base on facts, instead of ideologies, it is important to have have facts and actual data before decisions are made.

    Have a read of some of the “census-related correspondence between the highest levels of Statistics Canada, Industry Canada and the Privy Council Office”

  5. Dan Colborne says:

    Before you jump to the defense of the long form better read it. Asking people if they’re in a same-sex common-law relationship (in so many words), or which of the children in the household were born out of wedlock (implied), is very personal. If the government must ask these sorts of questions fair enough, but people who feel they’re too intrusive must be free to decline to answer without any fear of retaliation. Making the process voluntary is the best solution. The only other is to discontinue the long form all together.

  6. kempton says:


    To make one simple and straight forward point: no voluntary survey of any size can correct the self-selection sampling bias.

    Those who don’t have time to do things that are labeled “voluntary” are sometimes the same people that need our the help the most.

    Over the last few weeks, I’ve written many many posts about the problems of turning the census into a voluntary survey. Please read those carefully. You can find them all by searching for “census”.

  7. Leni Pearce says:

    Thank god the mandatory long-form census has been scrapped! It is an outrageous violation of privacy, and possibly dangerous to respondents when one considers the potential for abuses. I am thinking of how the equipment and software is outsourced to the US arms manufacturer Lockheed Martin Corporation with its seedy reputation and close links to US Homeland Security.

    Information necessary for the provision of services such as roads, public transportation, family services, child care, hospitals, schools, etc. can be gathered anonymously in a manner that can’t be traced back to specific individuals.

    Statistics Canada assures us that the information is protected by law. Laws have been broken again and again throughout history, and it can happen anywhere. Canada is no exception.

    Quite aside from this, however, I do not want some stranger of a bureaucrat having access to my privatel information.

  8. kempton says:


    What are you saying? Are you saying because of the privacy problems, etc, now that it is NOT mandatory, you will NOT fill in the census? Unfortunately, you may not be alone in thinking like this even though I think you and others action will seriously harm any governments’ ability to plan and delivery services based on facts and real stats, based on accurate needs of Canadians using reliable data.

    You see, no volunteering census can correct for “self-selection sampling bias”. Many older people, busy people, etc may not self-select themselves OUT of this census, and decide NOT to participate.

    I believe a nation’s business is serious. And we, Canadians, are much better off having our government’s decisions, services, and actions based on good and solid reliable data.

    Again, the fact that you are not alone is what worries me. Unfortunately, our PM don’t agree and is not worried.

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