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Gordon Watts Reports
Column published: 06 August 2010
By: Gordon A. Watts   Biography & Archived Articles

Gordon A. Watts

Topics in this column include:
  • Committee on Industry, Science and Technology meet on Census
  • Two surprises from the meeting

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

Committee on Industry, Science and Technology meet on Census

On Tuesday 27 July 2010, as a result of the widespread opposition to the government decision to eliminate the long-form questionnaire from the 2011 and subsequent Censuses of Population, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology met to hear testimony regarding this decision. This meeting started at 9:00 AM Ottawa time, which was 6:00 AM my time so I had to get up somewhat earlier than I normally do to view it.

Those that were not able to view the proceedings of the meeting while it was happening have the opportunity of viewing it at their leisure on CPACs Video-on-Demand. My thanks to Juanita MacDonald for passing on this information.

It is not my intention in this article to give a blow-by-blow description of what took place during this meeting. I do, however, have a few comments regarding the proceedings. In general terms, those witnesses appearing in defense of keeping long-form questionnaires mandatory, as part of the Census of Population, expressed concerns that a voluntary National Household Survey would not be as statistically accurate as the mandatory Census is. They were concerned that the information gathered would be skewed, and that there would be no way to judge just how bad the skew would be. The representative of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Elisapee Sheutiapik expressed concerns that because of language difficulties and an innate distrust of government, a voluntary survey was likely to have a zero response rate from the Inuit.

In asking questions of the witnesses, opposition members of the Committee concentrated on accuracy of voluntary vs. compulsory aspects of survey vs. Census; what consultation and due diligence had been done before making the decision; on what basis the decision was made; what numbers of complaints were received, and from who, that prompted the decision of government.

Government members of the committee, on the other hand, concentrated their efforts on emphasizing the compulsory aspect of the Census, and the penalties for refusing to respond to it. They appeared to delight in taking isolated questions, either real or imagined, from the long-form questionnaire, and asking the witnesses if they would be willing to throw the respondent in jail, or to levy a fine, for their refusal to answer the question. They made frequent references to penalties, fines, jail, forcing responses, threats, and coerciveness, etc. The impression given, to myself at least, was their goal was to show that supporters of compulsory long-form Census questionnaires were willing to throw everyone in jail for not answering the questions, while supporters of the government decision were not willing to do so.

Tony Clement
Minister of Industry

Ivan Fellegi
Former Chief Statistician of
Canada (prior to Munir Sheikh)

Mike Lake
Member of Parliament
Industry Minister Tony Clement took up the entire first hour of the meeting with a statement, and questions directed to him. It appeared to me that the questions asked of him by government members of the committee had been well orchestrated, as to answer many of them the Minister just happened to have papers at his fingertips to support his response.

Munir Sheikh
Former Chief Statistician of Canada

Claude Gravelle
Member of Parliament

Michael Chong
Member of Parliament
During his testimony Minister Clement made it clear the decision to eliminate the compulsory long-form Census questionnaire was made by government - it was not a decision of Statistics Canada. He indicated former Chief Statistician Munir Sheikh had been advised of the decision some months earlier and was asked for options for obtaining the information on a voluntary basis. The voluntary National Household Survey was apparently one of three options provided. It was the Ministers assertion that Munir Sheikh had approved of the change, and in fact recommended it, that had led to his resignation as Chief Statistician. (It seems to me an analogous situation would be asking a condemned prisoner by which method he wished to be executed - hanging, shooting, or lethal injection. The prisoner might have a preferred method, but it would not mean he approved of any of them.)

In the panel that followed, Munir Sheikh and his predecessor Ivan Fellegi were given the opportunity to make five-minute statements, after which they answered questions from the committee members. After so many years of being on the opposite side of the fence of former Chief Statistician Ivan Fellegi, I found it strange to agree with much that he had to say on the issue. Witnesses in the following panels did not make any statements but went straight to answering questions from committee members.

Before the conclusion of the meeting, MP Claude Gravelle (NDP) moved a motion, that apparently had been circulated to members of the committee and so it was not read out. As it turned out however, the intent of the motion was to have the government reverse the decision to eliminate the long-form questionnaire and reinstate it to Census.

MP Mike Lake (CON) proceeded to ask a number of questions relating to the motion, indicating that he did not know what the intention of the motion was. An exchange of questions and responses took place between the two, and some other MPs, with the end result that there was a very minor change made to the wording of the motion.

Do not get me wrong, when any motion is made, those debating the motion have every right to question anything they do not find clearly stated. In this instance however, as I watched the debate it was my impression that Mr. Lake and the other government members on the committee knew only too well what the original intent of the motion was, and the only reason for their questions was to jerk around the opposition members of the committee. I was particularly bothered by the smug, "cat that ate the canary" look on the face of Mr. Lake as he continued to pretend not to understand the intent of the motion.

The amended motion, which read "….. the government should immediately reinstate the mandatory nature of the long-form census" was voted on and passed.

At the end of the day it seems the entire meeting was an exercise in futility. Media reports that evening indicated that despite the concerns expressed, the government was not going to reverse the decision to eliminate the mandatory long-form questionnaire on Census. It would appear the intent of government in calling the meeting was simply to have an exercise in public relations rather than to have a serious dialogue regarding the concerns expressed by others. Obviously, from the start, government had no intention of reversing their decision, regardless of anything coming out of the meeting.

I have not yet had any response to my own email to members of the committee, but I have seen the response to one of my readers. In that response Michael Chong, chair of the committee, advised her regarding the passage of the motion above, and stated that it would be reported to Parliament when sitting of the House resumed in September. Unfortunately, even if the decision to eliminate the long-form questionnaire were reversed at that time, it would be too late for the 2011 Census.

For those interested, within two weeks the edited transcripts of the meeting, or a link to them, should be available here.

Two surprises from the meeting

As indicated by the headline, there were two surprises coming from the statement of Minister Clement. At least they were surprises to me, and I suspect to many others as well.

The first surprise was that the questionnaire for the National Housing Survey was already on line on the Statistics Canada website. It can be viewed in html or pdf format. The html format can be viewed here. When I first accessed the pdf version it showed a scanned image of the actual schedule, which appeared to be the original long-form Census questionnaire, with the cover page removed and all references to "census" having been changed to "National Household Survey". Since then however, it has been changed to show a pdf version of what appears now on the html version - a draft of the questions asked rather than the questionnaire itself.

The second surprise is something that I recalled hearing during the statement given by Minister Clements. I had some difficulty finding it in the unedited transcript of the meeting I received from the committee clerk until I listened to it again on the CPAC Video-on-Demand website. The reason I had difficulty finding it is that it was contained in a segment of the statement in which the Minister spoke French. The simultaeneous English translation was as follows:
    "Genealogy experts have also told us that they were concerned that they would no longer be able to consult personal information contained in the long-form Census questionnaire after 2012 without the consent of the respondent. To allay these concerns I specifically requested that Statistics Canada include in the National Household Survey a question to ensure that the respondent provided their consent to make sure that all this information could be communicated after 92 years."
OK. So it was back to the NHS questionnaire, and sure enough, there it was as Step F - the same consent question as had been on the mandatory long-form questionnaire for Census. The only difference being that the reference to Census was now substituted by a reference to the National Household Survey.

On the surface it would appear, against all expectations, concerns of genealogists regarding loss of information vital to tracing ancestral origins were actually listened to. Inclusion of the consent question on the voluntary National Household Survey would appear to be an attempt to relieve those concerns. There is still a problem with this however.

Simply including a consent question for release, 92 years in the future, of information provided by respondents to the National Household Survey, does not necessarily mean that it will happen. Statistics Canada has not traditionally released information from surveys to the public, except in non-identifiable aggregate form. For the NHS to be useful for genealogy, and some forms of historical research, it must be available in a nominal, i.e. name-connected, format.

Consensual information provided by respondents to a compulsory Census questionnaire is mandated, by clauses in the Statistics Act, to be released to the public 92 years after collection. Currently, there is no such legislated mandate to release nominal information from the voluntary National Household Survey. Until there is such a legislated mandate, consensual release of the NHS information in 92 years is still in doubt.

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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