Conservatives Curtail Census
Continuing consequences yet to be calculated

“The National Household Survey is going to be a colossal failure,” predicts David Calrkson, student Senate representative for the Capilano Students’ Union (CSU). These words come in the heady days of political turmoil, following a major policy shift on the part of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.

This past June, Industry Minister Tony Clements announced that the Conservative government had chosen to replace the existing mandatory long form census with a non-compulsory alternative, called the National Household Survey (NHS).

This decision has had far-reaching consequences, amongst them, the resignation of Munir Sheikh, head of Statistics Canada. Sheikh penned an open letter as his final official act, wherein he proffered his thoughts on, “the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census.” Simply put, he stated that “it cannot” replace the long form census, a criticism which Clements and other conservative pundits were quick to rebut.
Mackenzie Gans, a one-time Conservative Party intern, sees the reality as being entirely opposite. He commented in an interview that, “[he thinks] that the NHS will have comparable quality to the long form survey, and produce data usable for many.”

The data gathered by the long form census, issued once every five years to 20 per cent of Canadian constituents, is used extensively for research and analysis by universities and government agencies nationwide. Guy Heywood, a City of North Vancouver Councilor and former professor at Capilano University, expounded that, “if you’re going to do analyses of what ails society and come up with prescriptions you need to have good data, and this policy disables all levels of government [from accessing such data].”

Continuing, he noted that, “the major census occurs once every five years, so to lose one is quite serious … we lose the continuity of our time series studies and we lose the accuracy of future analyses. Given that the [next federal] election may not be until next year, the damage will be quite serious.”

As observed by Clarkson, the loss of information will profoundly affect the student body at Capilano, especially those in programs such as the social sciences, or business. On behalf of the CSU, he penned a letter to Clements decrying the loss of the long form census, and urging its reinstatement. The letter reads, in part, “As a voluntary survey, the National Household Survey will be subject to a self-selection bias that undermines the confidence, reliability, and usefulness of the data it collects. This self-selection bias will result in the underrepresentation of linguistic minorities, the socioeconomically disadvantaged, First Nations, young adults – including students – and new immigrants.”

Clarkson distinguished that, although the Conservatives have “claimed that increasing the sample size will mitigate [inaccuracies], all it will do is … decrease the margin of error in a sample that is not representative of the population.”

Conversely, Gans argued that, “The NHS will be sent to significantly more households then the old long form survey, and also have an awareness-campaign. The awareness campaign will have a national reach and this will raise response rates, which will result in quality data.”

Further, he continued, “given the chance, I would … replace the mandatory long-form census with a voluntary National Household Survey. I do not feel it is fair or reasonable to threaten Canadians with imprisonment if they do not fill out dozens of pages of questions about their personal lives.”

However, none of those interviewed by the Courier had any knowledge of large-scale arrests due to non-compliance with the long form census. Only one woman, who protested the census due to issues not pertaining to the census questions themselves, has thus far stood trial for such offenses.

Although the Conservatives have raised the specter of information security concerns, both Senator Clarkson and Councilor Heywood agreed that there have been no incidences of mismanagement of this data. Further, Heywood opined, “[this] is quintessentially an area where you can’t substitute private sector research,” due to the much greater security risks.
In the intervening months since the June announcement, the public backlash has been widespread, as shown in a recent survey by EKOS, a member of the Association of Canadian Market Research Organizations. In the survey, it is shown that Harper’s approval ratings have fallen significantly, bringing his party even with the Liberal opposition.

As for Sheikh, he has found himself a new position as Distinguished Fellow and Adjunct Professor at Queen’s University.

//Max MacKay
Staff Writer

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