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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.
The Conservatives say requiring people to answer detailed questions violates privacy rights, but critics, including business groups, social activists and even churches, say the current system produces needed information to assist them with planning and funding.
In addition to asking a person's age, sex and where they live, the long form used during in the 2006 census asked for more detailed information on their income and housing conditions and how they travel to work.
In Tuesday's hearing, Industry Minister Tony Clement appeared to downplay the privacy argument by stressing the government's concern that people who refused to fill out the longer census form could be sent to jail.
Clement, however, rejected a compromise suggested by the National Statistics Council that the long form could remain mandatory, but without the threat of jail for those refusing to answer it.
"If you have a situation where something is mandatory but you have no sanction it's pretty much an empty threat," Clement said.
No one has been jailed for refusing to fill out the form, which was developed in a 1971 overhaul of the census, according to Statscan officials.
Opposition lawmakers accused the government of hypocrisy since people who refuse to answer the short-form questionnaire will still face the threat of jail.
Sheikh, whose resignation on July 21 garnered national headlines, said he felt compelled to step down over media reports quoting government officials as saying Statscan was satisfied with the shift to a voluntary survey.
"I came to the conclusion that I cannot be the head of an agency whose reputation has suffered," he told lawmakers.
Clement acknowledged there was opposition to the idea within Statscan, but said the final decision over how to conduct the census was up to the government.
Opposition lawmakers disputed claims there was major public opposition to the census, and accused the government of creating a political crisis in pursuit of a right-wing ideology.
Reporting Allan Dowd; editing by Rob Wilson