Conservatives backtracks slightly on census

Wed Aug 11, 2010 6:43pm EDT
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VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Canada's Conservative government backtracked slightly on Wednesday over its plan to change next year's census, which has drawn both political and legal fire and may be hurting it in the polls.

But Industry Minister Tony Clement said the government is sticking with its overall plan to convert part of the mandatory census, which collects more-detailed information on Canadians every five years, into a voluntary survey.

The government says the "long-form" census, which went to about 20 percent of the population and asked detailed questions about families and households, was an invasion of privacy and should be made voluntary.

Critics say making it optional will undermine the accuracy of data used by business, government and social planners.

In a surprise announcement on Wednesday, Clement said questions about the languages used in the home will now be asked on the shorter version of the census form that is sent to most Canadians and remains mandatory.

"Our government believes that this fair and reasonable approach is a better balance between collecting necessary data and protecting the privacy rights of Canadians," Clement said in a statement.

French language groups have asked a court to keep the long-form census mandatory, saying that making it voluntary would cut data about the needs of French-speaking citizens in Canada, which has both English and French as official languages.

Clement said the government was not reacting to the lawsuit, but rather to its obligations under Canada's language laws, although he acknowledge to CBC News that the government was taking "a little bit of water in our wine."

The government will also eliminate the threat of prison sentences for people refusing to answer the census, arguing that amounted to improper coercion. The penalty has never actually been imposed.   Continued...