Two years ago, the Harper Government scrapped the mandatory long form census. Shortly after, the then-head of Statistics Canada, Munir Sheikh, resigned in protest.

This leaves us as the only first-world country without a reliable census of our population. Unfortunately this is only one strand in a much larger narrative, as the Harper Government reduces and/or removes sources of information and protection. This is marked most recently by Bill-38, the 425-page budget omnibus bill (and the online protests happening today against it).

Why should we care?

One reason: there are many different professional groups that depend on reliable long-form census data.

My undergrad thesis, “Estimating Population: A Case Study of Accessibility to Outdoor Pools in London, Ontario, Canada”, relied entirely on Statistics Canada. The data was at the dissemination area level, broken down into neighbourhood-sized blocks, the smallest level Statistics Canada data is broken down into, to protect privacy. I studied the theory behind how we understand population and how people move in their environment, developing a new method of doing so in the process. I performed my research by studying how accessible London public pools are to young people but with application to other amenities like schools, grocery stores etc. The research goal was to develop a better understanding of our populations and plan for them.

The Harper Government has demonstrated it doesn’t have time for anything that doesn’t confirm their beliefs. As Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird explains, fact should suit government opinion:

Why should taxpayers have to pay for more than 10 reports promoting a carbon tax, something that the people of Canada have repeatedly rejected? That is a message the Liberal Party just will not accept. It should agree with Canadians. It should agree with the government. No discussion of a carbon tax that would kill and hurt Canadian families. [Emphasis mine]

But in striking down the mandatory long-form census, the government went even further. Instead of disregarding unbiased research and suggesting government-funded work should twist fact to suit opinion, Statistics Canada should no longer be in the business of gathering reliable data on the Canadian population at all. This would eliminate the possibility of further credible Canadian social studies entirely.

Those in support of the change made it a case of personal liberty (although there are only a handful of complaints each time the census is distributed, and no one has been prosecuted for refusing to complete the census). They are assured that it is only “elitist” hand-wringing, whose precious data will be perfectly fine.

In fact, those in support of eliminating the mandatory census point out that the number of people that fill it out may very well go up as more people have the opportunity to opt-in, completely ignoring how skew is produced in data. Without a truly random sample of the population, the data becomes worthless as it cannot be verified that it produces a fair representation of the Canadian population. As people groups (be it by income level, race, gender, ethnicity, religion, etc.) become over- or under-represented, the data no longer presents an accurate picture, and makes the work of professionals like planners that much more difficult.

I’ve been frustrated by this since it happened, but have left it alone since the initial outrage. Until this Sun article, published this weekend, “Census cry was all elitist paranoia”, re-opened the wound.

The article describes how the government is still receiving a rough image of the country via Statistics Canada data (a lot of the information cited is available from the mandatory short-form census that every household fills out), and says therefore there was never a problem, just a lot of elites complaining.

First of all, what is an “elite”? There isn’t further mention in the article except stating that the concern over the value of future census data is just “elitist paranoia”, and as an irregular reader of Sun media I can only gather it means professionals, i.e. eggheads.

I guess I fit into that mold. As a student of planning and statistics, I am deeply concerned about research of the kind I performed in school, the kind my professors continue to do. I’m concerned about the work of every type of professional that relies on this data (planners, statisticians, social services etc.), who will no longer be able to say without doubt that the data they rely on isn’t corrupted, casting the value of their work into question. The article states that:

Editorialists opined that the government’s assault on the purity of the census would undermine public policy formation and “hamper Ottawa’s ability to solve social problems.”

Those editorialists would be right, though this ignores the larger (or perhaps smaller) picture. Ottawa relies on this data, but likely the provinces and municipalities far more so. The work our cities and provinces do at the micro scale to understand the people they work to serve rely heavily on the kind of data now rendered highly questionable, at best.

This attitude is unfortunately similar to the one repeatedly shown of late in London’s City Hall as city staff recommendations have been ignored by Council; despite stacks of evidence Council is pushing through decisions against the public interest. I’ve unfortunately been reminded more than once by those who think that they know better (present and past members of Council) that we elected our Council to do the thinking and to rely too heavily on the opinion of the unelected experts would be devastatingly undemocratic.

As an “elite”, I am offended both by the author arrogantly stating this is a non-issue without doing any kind of analysis of how the data is/isn’t compromised (“we’re still getting data, therefore everything is fine” is not a valid argument), and by the lack of respect for those that do the analysis. Planners use this data to understand the people they work to plan for and to serve them most effectively and efficiently. When knee-jerk, uninformed decisions like this happen, it only makes their jobs much more difficult.

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