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Gordon Watts Reports
Column published: 12 July 2010
By: Gordon A. Watts   Biography & Archived Articles

Gordon A. Watts

Topics in this column include:
  • Canadian government backing down on long-form census issue?
    • My letter to Industry Minister Tony Clement
    • Letter to my Member of Parliament
  • UK to scrap Census entirely?

Scroll down this page to read the complete articles...

Canadian government backing down on long-form census issue?

Since the non-announcement of the government, on 26 June 2010, that the 2011 Census of Canada would not include a mandatory long-form questionnaire, there has been a flurry of complaints that will hopefully cause the government to have second thoughts regarding their bone-headed, ill-thought-through decision. Don't hold your breath however, waiting for that to happen.

Complaints have not been limited to those from historians and genealogists, but have come from a wide variety of sources. Media outlets report complaints coming from historians, genealogists, archivists, sociologists, economists, statisticians, provincial and municipal governments, community groups, business groups, and other organizations that depend on data from the long-form questionnaire to develop relevant policies.

Concerns expressed about the voluntary National Household Survey (NHS) are that responses from those who bother to answer it will reduce the amount and accuracy of information gathered, it will be biased, will have uncertain quality, and that the quality of the data gathered will not be publishable.

Even our nemesis during our seven-year campaign to regain public access to Post-1901 Census records, former Chief Statistician Dr. Ivan P. Fellegi, has spoken out against the move to eliminate the mandatory long-form Census questionnaire and replace it with a voluntary National Household Survey (NHS). He has done so however, for reasons different than those voiced by others. Dr. Fellegi would eliminate the mandatory long-form questionnaire altogether, to save the money it costs to produce, but would not replace it with the voluntary National Household Survey.

In all likelihood, those involved in genealogical research would object less to the elimination of the long-form questionnaire if a few of the questions asked therein were to be moved to the still compulsory short-form questionnaire. I refer to those questions relating specifically to place of birth, where and when parents were born, year and means of immigration, and occupation. Addition of these questions to the short-form questionnaire would continue to allow genealogical researchers in the future to trace their ancestral origins. It is doubtful however, that this move by itself would prove satisfactory to other types of researchers.

In response to complaints the office of Industry Minister Tony Clement stated the government is "considering" ways to make long form information available. "We are looking at all options to see if additional legislation or regulation is necessary". On Twitter, Minister Clement stated "I can assure that we're ensuring long-form data will be released." I have no doubts that the data will be released, far sooner than 92 years after collection, but it will be in aggregate form - a form that is not connected to those who provided the information. Unless the data is provided in nominal form it is useless for those who would use the data to research personal ancestry.

Liberal Marlene Jennings, as Government Ethics and Democratic Reform Critic, has been quoted in the media as stating that if the Conservatives do not reverse their decision to eliminate the mandatory long form questionnaire, Liberals "… are prepared to explore the introduction of an amendment to the Statistics Act to ensure a comprehensive, mandatory long-form stays".

Will the government reverse their decision on this crucial matter. I do not know, but even if they do it will likely be too late for the 2011 Census. In any case I am not going to hold my breath until I hear the results.

My letter to Industry Minister Tony Clement
    8 July 2010

    Honourable Tony Clement
    Minister for Industry
    House of Commons
    Parliament Buildings
    Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A6

    Dear Sir:

    Industry Minister Tony Clement
    Conservative Party
    As Minister for Industry, responsible for Statistics Canada and therefore for the Census of Canada, I write to you at this time to protest, in the strongest possible terms, the removal of the long form Census questionnaire from the 2011 and future Censuses. I do so on behalf of the many thousands of Canadians, and others, who find much of the information contained therein essential for genealogical and historical research.

    The elimination of the long form Census questionnaire was done, by your own admission (according to media reports), without prior notice or consultation with the communities most affected by this action. The supposed rationale for doing so was because of "privacy concerns" by a handful of unnamed individuals who consider the information requested by the Census to be "intrusive".

    Apparently, the hundreds of thousands of communications, and the more than 75,000 signatures on petitions sent to MPs and Senators from 1998 to 2005, seeking return of public access to 92-year-old Census records are vastly outweighed by the handful of individuals who find questions on the long form "intrusive".

    Removal of the long form questionnaire is a betrayal of the many thousands of Canadians, and others, who successfully sought to regain public access to historic Census records 92 years after collection. Those records were being withheld simply because of a policy decision of the former Chief Statistician, Dr. Ivan P. Fellegi. In refusing to return control of the Census records to the National Archivist Dr. Fellegi was able to bypass Regulations attached to the Privacy and Access to Information Acts that permitted Census records under the control of the National Archivist to be released, 92 years after collection, to "any person or body, for purposes of research".

    Our seven-year campaign ended 28 June 2005, when Bill S-18 was passed by Parliament. Bill S-18 amended the Statistics Act to ensure the release of Census of Population records, including information contained on the existing long form questionnaires, 92 years following collection. The only proviso being that for Censuses after 2005, information provided could only be made available after 92 years if the providers of that information gave their consent.

    Bill S-18 provided for a Parliamentary review of the administration and effect of the "consent" question, to take place not later than two years following the second Census after the enacting of the Bill. That review is to take place following the Census of 2011.

    Erik Waddell, speaking on your behalf, was quoted in the media as stating "This change was made to reasonably limit what many Canadians felt was an intrusion of their personal privacy". I respectfully submit to you, that almost identical wording was given as the rationale for imposing the "consent question" on Censuses conducted after 2005. It was the information contained on the long form questionnaire that was given as the reason for imposing the "consent question".

    Respondents to Census currently have the ability to withhold permission for information they provide being released 92 years in the future. Elimination of the long form questionnaire prevents those who wish to make their information available to future descendants from doing so.

    Complaints regarding the removal of the long form questionnaire are not limited to genealogists and historians, but come from all walks of life, i.e. sociologists, biographers, business groups, community groups, provincial and municipal governments and more, not to mention your own federal government, all of whom have been dependant upon information that will no longer be available to them.

    Erik Waddell stated "We are still in the early stage of the setup of (the) 2011 Census". In actual fact, preparations and consultations on the 2011 Census have been ongoing since 2007. The online reports of those consultations give no indication this change was ever considered - a fact that Rosemary Bender, Assistant Chief Statistician in charge of the National Household Survey, confirmed to me personally in a telephone call. Ms. Bender advised that the removal of the long form questionnaire was as big a surprise to those working in Statistics Canada as it was to anyone. She indicated that Statistics Canada was almost ready to print both Short and Long form questionnaires when they found out about the change.

    In response to complaints your office has stated the government is "considering" ways to make long form information available. "We are looking at all options to see if additional legislation or regulation is necessary". On Twitter you stated "I can assure that we're ensuring long-form data will be released."

    You will forgive me, I'm sure, if I say I have little faith in such statements. Governments can "consider", and "look at options" until the end of time. I have no doubt that information on the National Household Survey will be released. It will not take 92 years to be released, but will be available almost immediately the survey is completed and the data is compiled. The problem is that any such release of data will be in aggregate form.

    For the information to be useful for genealogical research, and some forms of historical research, it must be available in nominal form - i.e. connected to the names of those providing it. The fact that nominal information contained in Census is not released until 92 years after collection should be more than sufficient to allay any fears that "privacy concerns" have been compromised.

    During our seven-year effort to regain public access to historic Census records I received the following letter from the Office of now Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

      September 16, 2004

      Mr. Gordon A. Watts
      Co-chair, Canada Census Committee
      1455 Delia Drive
      Port Coquitlam, BC V3C 2V9

      Dear Mr. Watts:

      On behalf of Stephen Harper, thank you for your letter of August 29 regarding the release of post-1901 census records.

      The Conservative Party supports the preservation of census records and the subsequent transfer of these records to the National Archives for public release. We believe that keeping the records confidential for the historical 92-year period is an adequate length of time, and that this is generally consistent with the practice in Britain and the United States, where records are kept confidential for 100 and 72 years respectively.

      Once again, thank you for taking the time to write.


      Salpie Stepanian
      Assistant to the Leader

    It seems ironic to me that while in Opposition the Conservative Party officially supported retention and future release of information contained in historic Census records, but now, as the Government, you have taken away much of what made those records so valuable for research.

    To date, the Census has been the single most important documented information available to the historical and genealogical communities. It has been the greatest source of information for the history of the country. Removing the information contained in the long form questionnaire will, in large part, destroy much of the value of Census. It is a huge change, one that will have disastrous consequences for future genealogical and historical researchers. I urge you, and the government, to reverse your decision regarding this change, and to reinstate the long form questionnaire.

    Respectfully yours,

    Gordon A. Watts
    Co-chair, Canada Census Committee

    Cc: Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper, Prime Minister
    James Moore, MP

Letter to my Member of Parliament
    8 July 2010

    Honourable James Moore, MP
    House of Commons
    Parliament Buildings
    Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A6

    Dear Sir:

    Honourable James Moore, MP
    Conservative Party
    As my Member of Parliament you supported my earlier efforts (1998 - 2005), as Co-chair of the Canada Census Committee, to regain public access to Historic Census records, 92 years after collection.

    At the time, it was the official position of the Conservative Party that those records should be retained, and turned over to the control of the National Archivist for subsequent release to any person or body, for purposes of research.

    On Saturday, 26 June 2010, the Canada Gazette published an Order in Council detailing the wording of questions for the Census of Agriculture and Census of Population for 2011. The Census of Population showed the questions for the Short-Form questionnaire, but there was no questions published for the traditional Long-Form questionnaire. There was no explanation regarding this missing questionnaire --- it was simply not there.

    Subsequent research found, on the Statistics Canada website, a statement that the Long-Form questionnaire had been eliminated, and that information requested on it would henceforth be asked on a voluntary National Household Survey (NHS). It was further indicated that while the information on the Short-Form Census would be released 92 years after collection, information collected on the NHS would never be made publicly available.

    This action, taken with no notice or consultation with any of the many communities it will affect, will have disastrous effects for the future. I hope that you will be supportive of efforts by genealogists, historians, businesses, municipal and provincial governments, and many others who oppose this unprecedented action.

    I include with this letter, a copy of the letter I have sent to Industry Minister Tony Clement. For the most part it is self-explanatory.

    Thank you.

    Gordon A. Watts
    Co-chair, Canada Census Committee.

"...UK is looking at scrapping Census
collection entirely"
UK to scrap Census entirely?

News reports published by the Telegraph and BBC News in the United Kingdom indicate that the UK is looking at scrapping Census collection entirely. After 200 years of collecting Census information, the 2011 Census could be the last collected. The UK Census has been collected every ten years since 1801.

Reports are that the UK Government is examining different ways to count the population, perhaps by using existing public and private databases, including credit reference agencies, Royal Mail and Government. If people think that answering questions on Census is intrusive, wait until they find out supposedly inviolate databases are now giving all their information to the government. Fortunately, in Canada we have legislation that should prevent that happening here.

For all the same reasons that we here complain about the elimination of long-form questionnaires on our Census, considering complete elimination of regular Census collection in the UK would be a tragedy of enormous proportions.

For further information see the reports of the Telegraph and the BBC.

Until next time.

Gordon A. Watts

Your comments regarding this newsletter, and suggestions for future articles are welcome. Click here to send me a message with a subject line of "Gordon Watts Reports".

To view back issues of Gordon Watt's columns, visit Gordon's biography page where all of his archives articles are available.

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