Canadian government, bureaucrats spar over census

Tue Jul 27, 2010 1:58pm EDT
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By Allan Dowd

VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Former leaders of Canada's statistics agency warned on Tuesday that the government's planned changes to next year's census could endanger its usefulness by allowing bias to creep into the data.

The Conservative government, however, said it would not reverse its decision to eliminate the mandatory "long-form" census, and denied opposition party charges it was attempting to use the census to manufacture a needless political crisis.

A parliamentary committee hearing in Ottawa saw an unusual showdown between the government minister responsible for the census and two former directors of Statistics Canada, the agency that conducts it -- including one who quit in protest over the changes.

Former chief statisticians Munir Sheikh, whose resignation prompted the hearing, and Ivan Fellegi said replacing the mandatory long form with a voluntary questionnaire could allow bias to influence the data collected on how Canadians live.

Differences in the quality of data could make it impossible for government planners and private economists to compare 2011 findings with those from previous censuses to see how Canada is changing, the statisticians said.

"If (the data) is used widely without appreciation of the likelihood of bias, that's a major societal risk. It's not a statistical risk, its a societal risk," said former Statscan chief Fellegi, who retired in 2008.

The government announced last month that the mandatory long form with detailed demographic questions now sent to 20 percent of Canadians would be replaced with a voluntary form, which will be sent to more people.

Most Canadians fill out a shorter version of the census, which will remain mandatory.   Continued...