Thank you, Mr. Chairman and honourable members. I'm pleased to be here today to talk about the government's decision to replace the mandatory census long form with a voluntary form.
Our government's reason for replacing the mandatory census with a voluntary national survey on the long form is clear. We do not believe it is appropriate to compel Canadians to divulge extensive private and personal information. We do not believe Canadians should be forced under threat of fines, jail, or both to divulge the answers to questions such as these: How many sick days did you take last year? Were you paid for those? What were your total payments for your primary dwelling last year? Do you have any broken floor tiles in need of repair in your bathroom?
We recognize that the information gathered in the long-form census is valuable. However, we also recognize that a balance must be drawn when the government is collecting data under the threat of fines, jail, or both.
Now, although the census goes back to 1871, the long-form census has only been around since 1971. The level of detailed personal information that Canadians are being asked to hand over to the government has grown. The basic eight census questions have remained constant for decades. The additional questions that suddenly appeared in 1971 have been modified, with new ones added each census.
The short-form census is mandatory and consists of eight mandatory questions on basic demographic information, such as date of birth, gender, marital status and mother tongue. This form will be distributed to all Canadian households.
Now, as both a member of Parliament and the minister responsible for Statistics Canada, I have heard directly from individuals and groups a very compelling message--that the government should not threaten people with prosecution when collecting detailed private and personal data. That is why our government announced that we would no longer punish Canadians for choosing not to complete the 40-page long-form survey sent to 20% of households.
Now, critics of this decision believe that if a Canadian refuses to fill out the long form, that person deserves to be prosecuted to a maximum fine of $500, or to imprisonment of three months, or both. The government asked Statistics Canada to provide options for administering a voluntary long-form questionnaire. I want to be clear on this point: it was our government that took the decision to put an end to the concept of threatening Canadians with fines and/or jail time for not completing the 40-page census long form, and we then sought options from Statistics Canada on how to implement a reliable voluntary survey. This led to the creation and implementation of the national household survey.
This reasoned and responsible approach is about finding a better balance between collecting necessary data and protecting the privacy rights of Canadians. That long-form data will now be collected through this new voluntary survey, the national household survey. The questions that will be asked in the new survey are identical to the questions that would have been asked in the mandatory long-form census. Moreover, on the advice of StatsCan, who recognized that the sample size would decrease as the long form becomes voluntary, we have agreed to send the national household survey to 4.5 million Canadian households, almost double the sample size from 2006. This will be the largest survey distributed to the Canadian population in our history.
The short-form census of population remains mandatory. We count on every Canadian to provide this basic information, as they did in previous censuses. StatsCan will administer the national household survey in close coordination with the census, and will use a variety of non-coercive methods to encourage Canadians to respond to the survey. We will also take steps to strengthen the communications and advertising efforts around the national household survey in order to address concerns about response rates.
Now, this is the first time StatsCan is conducting the national household survey. StatsCan will be monitoring the results carefully, applying the same rigorous methods and standards used for all of its voluntary surveys. This will achieve the appropriate balance between the need to collect information on households to inform public policy without undue legal requirements on Canadians to do so.
A number of concerns have been raised after the announcement. Let me try to shed some light on this debate.
Some critics have raised a concern that the government will not be able to comply with its obligations under the Official Languages Act.
But I assure you that all the questions on official languages that were asked in the 2006 census will be asked in the 2011 short-form census questionnaire.
The new national household survey includes questions on Canadians' knowledge of official languages, mother tongue, and languages spoken at home. This government remains fully committed to take into account the priorities of the office of the commissioner of languages in the development and implementation of its policies, programs, and services.
Genealogists also told us that they worry about no longer being able to refer to the personal information included in the long-form questionnaire after 92 years, without the respondent's consent. In order to address those concerns, I specifically asked Statistics Canada to include in the national household survey a question asking the respondents for their consent to the release of personal information after 92 years.
As I've stated before, our government felt the need to strike a fair and reasonable balance between asking mandatory personal and intrusive questions and making those questions voluntary. However, we've not heard anything from the opposition or critics regarding their views on which questions should be mandatory versus voluntary. Now the opposition parties have promised to force all Canadians to answer personal and intrusive questions about their private lives under threat of jail, fine, or both.
With the opposition failing to support our government's tough on crime agenda, I find it curious that the only people the opposition are willing to get tough on are those law-abiding Canadians who do not want to divulge extensive personal and private information to representatives of the state. We believe, however, that our new approach, combining a mandatory short-form census with a voluntary long-form survey, achieves an appropriate balance between the need for data to inform public policy research while respecting the privacy of Canadians.
I want to comment for a moment on the role of the cabinet and the suggestion by some that politicians should play no role in these decisions.
Under section 31 of the Statistics Act, answering census questions is mandatory, and Canadians who refuse are subject to fine or imprisonment. I understand that there are some who believe that the people's elected representatives should have no say in this decision, but that is not what the legislation provides. The legislation requires democratic accountability before the penal power of the state is engaged. Specifically, subsection 21(1) of the legislation says that cabinet must approve the questions that Canadians are forced to answer.
Mr. Chairman, this just plain makes sense. If a Canadian is subject to imprisonment for not answering, he or she should be assured that the mandatory questions were approved by the democratically elected government. Further, citizens deserve to have the right of appeal to their democratically elected representatives rather than be told that they have no rights because democratic accountability has no place in the census.
As I said, starting with the Trudeau government in the 1970s, Liberal cabinets have dramatically expanded the list of mandatory questions. Now, one can agree or disagree with those decisions, but they were properly made by elected governments discharging their accountability under the legislation.
Our government has exercised our statutory responsibility differently--by reducing the number of mandatory questions and increasing the number of voluntary ones. Again, this is what the legislation provides. So to those in the opposition or to commentators who have criticized not just the decision but the very authority for the decision, I ask this simple question: who do you want to decide under what circumstances you are subject to jail--your duly elected representatives or someone else who is unaccountable to you?
I believe our government's decision finds that balance between collecting necessary data and protecting the privacy rights of Canadians.
I look forward to hearing the views from today's committee meeting. This coming spring, I encourage all Canadians to fill out the national household survey should they choose to do so. StatsCan will continue to conduct and oversee the census process, and its employees will maintain the same rigorous methods and standards used for all of its surveys.
Thank you, Chair. Merci, monsieur le président.
Can I be permitted to respond to that and clarify the situation?
Mr. Marc Garneau: Sure.
Hon. Tony Clement: Obviously I was speaking with knowledge of the 2011 national household survey, which has been released and is found online at StatsCan.
Question 48 asks, “What time did this person usually leave home to go to work?” Question 50 asks you to give the total number of weeks worked for pay, including how much time was taken for vacation, or sick leave with pay, wages, salaries, tips, or commission. Question 53 asks, “In 2010, did this person pay child or spousal support payments to a former spouse or partner?” Dwelling repairs are found in question E6, which asks about “loose floor tiles, bricks or shingles, defective steps, railing or siding”. Question E8 asks what the yearly payments are for electricity.
These questions would have been found in the mandatory long-form census were not the decision made to go to a voluntary form, and they're still found in the voluntary form.
Thank you for the question.
Of course, as we ramp up closer and closer to another census, we know that the concerns of Canadians--not all Canadians, but some Canadians--who felt that the long-form questions were too personal, too intrusive, were going to bubble up again, just as they do every census. In fact, our tracking indicates that the number of complaints from Canadians increases every census. That was what we were facing again for 2011.
Again, we have heard the objections--that Canadians be compelled by law to answer detailed questions, which I've outlined and can do so very briefly again. Those are questions about child support, in question 53, or about spousal support, dwelling repairs, detailed questions about income, about when you usually leave home to go to work. These kinds of questions are being asked.
We believe, and we've come to the conclusion, that it is not appropriate to threaten jail, to threaten fines, to exact fines; God forbid someone actually takes it to the limit and actually finds himself with a three-month jail sentence for objecting to answer those personal questions.
That is why we sought different options. That's why we had this months-long dialogue with Statistics Canada to see whether we could have usable and reliable data that could be obtained at a reasonable cost for the purposes for which surveys are intended, while at the same time allowing those Canadians who object to this kind of personal information the ability to say no without sanction or penalty. That was a decision that we made.
So that's what we've been trying to do, and that's why we've upped the sample size to 4.5 million homes. This makes it the largest survey in the country's history.
That's a crucial difference between ourselves and the other side of the aisle in the House of Commons. We do not feel that Canadians should be forced, on threat of jail or fines, to provide this detailed information; we should at least give them the option of declining to do so.
A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to host a few round tables, three round tables, in my constituency. About 45 constituents overall came to these round tables. It was interesting; despite all the media coverage, not one of those constituents actually brought up any opposition to this decision at all.
In my conversations I've had with constituents, they're very surprised, actually, when they understand, when they hear, that there's a threat of jail time or fines for not answering questions on how many bedrooms you have in your house, or how many hours you spend doing yardwork or housework. One of the questions in the 2006 census was on how much time, basically, you spend with your kids.
When I articulate to them that these are the types of questions that have been in the long form, and that if they refuse to tell the government how much time they spend with their kids they can be threatened with jail time or fines, they're astounded by that. I think many Canadians don't really.... You know, they fill out the long form, maybe, if they're the one in five who get it, but they don't actually know that they're threatened with jail time for not filling out those questions. They're surprised and quite agitated by the fact that we would actually threaten them with jail time for not answering a question about how much housework you do or how much yardwork you do.
Now, I've heard our opponents on the other side, the Liberals, go forward and actually, I think quite surprisingly, continue to press for prosecution for not answering these questions, or press for the threat of prosecution for not answering these questions.
Is that the crux of this issue? Is that the defining difference between the parties?
It's good to have you here this morning, Mr. Minister.
I think you probably deliberately mischaracterized, or maybe you and your members are so blinded you accidentally mischaracterized, the fundamental difference between us and you--that we expect that an industry minister makes his decisions based on fact, not on urban myth, not on supposition, not on what people on talk radio would posit as government threats.
Now, my colleague Mr. Lake certainly lays it out. He has to hold a meeting and warn people...that they had no idea that they'd be jailed, that we have to create this belief that jackboots are going to kick down the doors and make poor immigrants cry.
I've checked the statistics. Nobody in 40 years has ever gone to jail. This is a manufactured crisis.
So if we look at the manufactured crisis, we have to look at whether there was any due diligence done or any preparatory work to justify this. Could you provide the privacy impact assessment analysis that was done on the 2011 census? Were there any problems with that?
I was asking because, again, as the industry minister, one expects that you make decisions not just based on blind ideology. I would have expected that you would be able to refer to the privacy impact assessment that was done, because you would have found there weren't any problems. I would have expected that you would have called the Privacy Commissioner, who addresses these, and that wasn't done. My colleague Brian Masse was speaking with the Privacy Commissioner, and they have had three complaints in ten years.
Now, I suppose if you go out like my colleague Mr. Lake did and have to tell constituents that they're threatened by it, they might think there was a problem. But the fact is that this was a manufactured crisis. You don't have evidence to show that this is bubbling up as a problem.
You talk about the need for balance. You talk about the fact that nobody's offering you alternatives. Last Monday a group--quite a divergent group, including the Canada West Foundation, key bankers, municipal planners, provincial thinkers, all the top bank economists--tried to meet with you in order to address this issue and try to find solutions, and you blew them off.
How can you find balance if you're more than interested in following the people who believe black helicopters are falling from the sky but you won't meet with people who rely on the data, who are credible, and who want to find solutions?
Why did you blow off that meeting?
I'll take that as a no.
I'll just move on to my next question, then, if you don't mind. I have some concerns, to follow up on what was talking about, with regard to the crises that have been created. Recently you introduced Bill , which all in all wasn't bad legislation--“Fairness at the Pumps”--but it was the title that came with it; it was the “anti-chisellers” act, to give the impression that everybody's out to get us when in reality a very small number of people actually are cheating at the pumps. There may be problems with some of the measurements, but it's a small percentage. But it made it sound like we were under attack, like there was a crisis there.
And now, all of a sudden, it sounds like the government will come to your door and throw you in jail. There's this crisis: if you don't fill out this form, you'll go to jail. Flashback to 1995, when I was a city councillor in North Bay; not long after that you were made a minister in a previous government. I've seen this show before. It's a replay. You create a crisis and get everyone upset, and all of a sudden you have a crowd of mad people out on the streets chasing something down that really doesn't exist.
This is about being jailed. It's about the penalty.
How many people have been jailed since 1971?
Good morning, Mr. Minister. Thank you for coming.
I would like to ask you a general question. I am from Quebec and, according to the last survey, we are the most reluctant province to answer under threat of jail. More than 62% of the people I am representing do not want to answer these types of questions under threat of jail or fine. That is what we are experiencing in my riding. Quebec is the most reluctant province.
Mr. Minister, this is what I would like to know. The media made a lot of noise when our government decided to make some of the mandatory questions voluntary. As I said in the preamble, I do not think that Canadians must be forced, under threat of fine or jail, to disclose private and personal information.
First, I would like to thank you for having the courage to stand up for privacy. It is very important. This is the first government in 30 years to protect privacy in this way.
Could you tell Canadians why the government made this decision and why you came to this decision, other than the fact that the surveys show that Quebec does not want the so-called mandatory system?
Thank you for your question.
Actually, the short-form census is mandatory and is distributed to all Canadian households. However, the 2006 long-form census, for example, was a 40-page questionnaire with 66 very detailed questions on language, education, housing, ethnicity, religion, citizenship and immigration, income, activities, and so on. Section 31 of the Statistics Act indicates that every person who refuses or neglects to provide any information is guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding $500 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months, or to both. It is a very harsh measure.
So, we decided that it was important to strike a fair balance between the needs of private companies, institutions, the provinces and territories to obtain more information, and the protection of Canadians. This way, if Canadians decide that this information is too personal, they have an option.
Good morning, Mr. Minister. Good morning, Mr. Dicerni.
The census issue we are currently debating is truly very disturbing. First, it is important to note that the Conservatives also conducted this type of census in 1986, under the Progressive Conservative Party, and in 1991, under Mr. Mulroney. The census had the same parameters.
As to imprisonment, could we not start with the fact that no one has ever been sent to jail? Why aren't you taking the initiative to simply eliminate this aspect? Rather than creating a state of psychosis or something like that, we would simply no longer talk about it. The fact that you are using this kind of argument to back out is extremely disturbing.
Scientists who make a living by doing studies based on statistics, including those of Statistics Canada, have clearly said that, on a scientific level, we would not get the same results from a voluntary questionnaire as from a mandatory questionnaire. It is not me saying that. It is people who have a Ph.D. and who work in this field. It is not gossip in the street or some political will to avoid frightening Canadians. As far as I know, 95% of the people who receive the long form fill it out. So we are creating a state of psychosis, a non-existent problem.
Perhaps we should first look at the origin of censuses. In modern times, and that is where I would like you to be rather than going back to the dark ages, as we went from absolute monarchies to some forms of democracy, information was needed to help citizens in all areas. The objective was mainly to combat poverty and improve health care conditions. At the time, we called it political mathematics. We now call it statistics. It is very useful for the state, especially for helping the population.
Mr. Minister, by choosing to send the long form to 30% of the population instead of 20%, as part of a voluntary process, you are ready to run the risk of having less data and fewer good results on a scientific level. Comparative elements will no longer be acceptable.
Under these conditions, we must remember that we will no longer provide the same service to Canadians. The City of Gatineau is against your approach, and so is the Province of Quebec. A host of organizations, institutions—parliamentary or otherwise—and citizens' representatives have spoken out against this change, as opposed to the few allies you have mentioned.
Mr. Minister, are you ready to back off, to admit that you followed the wrong path and agree that the current approach should be maintained, based on the comments of people who know this field?
Honourable Chair, members of the committee, I want to thank you for giving me this opportunity to appear before the committee today.
I think it will be useful, given the recent discussion of issues related to the census, to briefly describe the census process. This will be the basis for my five-minute remarks.
I'll describe this process with reference to two objectives that Statistics Canada tries to achieve, among others--first, to get as high-quality data as possible; and second, to gather these data at the least cost possible. These are the kinds of approaches that have given Statistics Canada the international reputation it has.
Let me break this entire process into six parts.
The first step is consultations with stakeholders and data users. The 2011 Census Content Consultation Guide was released in July 2007, and the 2011 Census Content Consultation Report was released in July 2008. Statistics Canada received more than 1,200 content-related suggestions from more than 150 organizations and private citizens.
The second step is the development of questions. Based on these consultations, and the need for continuity of historical information, changes from one census to the next are generally quite small. Sixty per cent of the questions asked in the 1971 census still remain. Questions in the 2006 census now dropped are related to unpaid work. Questions added for the 2011 census include commute time, child care support and its costs, and subsidized housing.
The third step is to determine which questions go into the short form and which to the long form. The distinction between the population short and long forms began with the 1971 census, as before that there was just a single questionnaire.
Statistics Canada does not differentiate among these questions on the basis of their importance, as they are all tied to the needs of a variety of users. For example, the head-count question in the short form may be the most important for governments in the distribution of parliamentary seats or federal-provincial transfers. But for a city's transportation planning department, the most important piece of information may be about how people get to work and how much time they spend commuting, a question that is in the long form.
It therefore is not the importance of the questions that determines whether they are in the short or the long form. What determines this division is a cost-efficiency test: how can we get the highest-quality data possible at the least cost?
To the best of my knowledge, those working at Statistics Canada on the 1971 census determined that for reasonably comparable levels of quality, some questions must be asked of the entire population. These ended up in the short form. For other questions, the required quality of information would be achieved by scientifically selecting a representative sample and making it mandatory for the sample to respond; this became the long-form questionnaire.
Naturally, the cost of using one-fifth of the population as a sample, rather than the whole population, reduces the cost of the census significantly, while reducing the response burden substantially as well.
Since 1971 Statistics Canada methodologists have reviewed this distribution of questions between the short and the long forms for every census cycle. This is the only reason why the following question is on the short form--and I quote--“What is the language that this person first learned at home in childhood and still understands?”, and on the long form, “During the week of Sunday May 1 to Saturday May 7, 2011, how many hours did this person spend working for pay or in self-employment?”
The fourth step in the process is for Statistics Canada to submit the proposed questions to the government and for the government to review these proposed questions and tell Statistics Canada what the census content will be.
The fifth step is to collect data. Again, to constantly strive to reduce costs, Statistics Canada moved in a substantive way to Internet data collection in the 2006 census. The May 2009 census test indicated the potential to double this response rate in 2011 to about 40%.
Statistics Canada's per-dwelling census cost is $43.77 in 2009-10 dollars, which compares with the cost of $126.18 in the U.S. and $49.68 in Australia, all in terms of Canadian dollars. Both are countries that we normally compare ourselves to.
The sixth step is to transform raw data into data that is useful for the users and to disseminate it. Dissemination begins about a year after the census, as the large amount of data has to be processed, edited, and checked for accuracy, gaps, and consistency. The data is analyzed thoroughly to understand the results before it is released publicly.
The whole process takes about seven years.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Thank you for inviting me to appear before this committee. I prepared slightly longer opening remarks, which I'm not going to read. They have been distributed or are available for distribution.
I'd also like to mention that I asked the Clerk of the Committee to distribute the National Statistics Council statement, “Seeking Solutions”, which was released yesterday.
I'll restrict my oral comments to a very few issues.
First of all, I want to underline how impressed I am—even I am impressed, having spent 51 years in Statistics Canada—by the widespread support and testament to the usefulness of the census and its importance. I wouldn't have believed that there would be so many groups mobilized and ready to make statements emphasizing their basic, fundamental dependence on the census. There cannot be any dispute about that at this point.
Second, I want to underline that any voluntary survey is intrinsically biased. That matters a great deal, because bias, unlike sampling error, cannot be estimated from the survey data themselves. Sampling error we can estimate. We make statements, as pollsters do, such as that 19 out of 20 times the results are within plus or minus 2% or 3% or whatever. Bias is a sneaky, pervasive risk, which we seek to understand always, but we never do. And the more widespread and the more detailed the breakdown of the data, as is the case with the census, the more pernicious the risk of bias becomes, because we don't know where it crops up. If it's used widely without an appreciation of the likelihood of bias, that's a major societal risk. It's not a statistical risk; it's a societal risk.
You don't have to take my word for it. The Statistical Society of Canada and the American Statistical Association both came out and made totally unambiguous statements on this issue.
What makes the bias particularly worrisome in this context is the fact that most users are really not interested in a snapshot; they are interested in how things have changed since the last time they were measured. And if the last time they were measured they were measured in an unbiased manner, and the next time they are measured in a biased manner, the results become basically not usable for that purpose. Even if they could in some sense be used as a kind of general guide for what the score is now, they really become unusable for purposes of making comparisons in terms of what has happened since the last census. And a great deal has happened since the last census. Among other things, there was a financial crisis in 2008.
My third point that I want to emphasize is that privacy is a central concern at Statistics Canada and has always been, and we have taken innumerable steps to improve the situation that was already very good to begin with.
First of all, there isn't a single case of any information ever reported to Statistics Canada having been released with identification of the source--that is, who reported it.
Second, way back in 1971—and this is just a factual correction I want to make—it wasn't the first time that we used the long form; in 1971 it was the first time we used a short form. Prior to 1971, every census was a long form--complete, 100%.
In 1971, at my personal initiative, actually—I wasn't chief statistician yet, but I was senior enough that I could take that initiative—we introduced sampling into the census for the very first time and created a short form, and the long form went to one in five people.
I won't go into all the other things we have done to improve privacy, because the chair has indicated that my time is maybe up, but I do want to close with really the fundamental point where I hope I'll be questioned—that is, where do we go from here? Statistics Canada and, through Statistics Canada, all its users are facing a unique situation, and we need to find constructive solutions.
I want to call your attention to the solution proposed by the National Statistics Council, which is a body actually appointed by the minister to advise the chief statistician. They came out yesterday with what I consider to be totally constructive proposals for resolving the impasse.
I want to close on that point. Thank you.
Mr. Sheikh and Mr. Fellegi, I want to thank both of you for being here today. I think it's extremely important. For an issue to have risen its head in the dead of summer, as it has now, is amazing. I've not seen this in my 17 years as a member of Parliament where a decision by the government has raised such opposition throughout the land.
Arthur Carty, the national science adviser; Jean-Pierre Kingsley, the former chief electoral officer; Linda Keen, the nuclear safety commissioner; Peter Tinsley, the former military complaints commissioner; Paul Kennedy, the former RCMP public complaints commissioner; Adrian Measner, former chair of the Wheat Board; and now you, Mr. Sheikh: after 38 years in a distinguished career of public servitude, for which we are indeed grateful, you have now found yourself in a position where you have had to resign.
Mr. Sheikh, could you please inform this committee about your unprecedented and courageous action to resign as chief statistician for this country?
Let me clarify a question, one that may be on some people's minds, by giving an analogy. We of course have voluntary surveys, lots of voluntary surveys; we have mandatory surveys; and we have a census. There could be a question as to why you would need a mandatory census if you have voluntary surveys.
I would say that we are like an auto manufacturer who produces passenger cars, SUVs, and 56-footers. We stand behind each one of our products. However, I would never recommend that somebody use a passenger car to deliver merchandise on a regular basis to a Wal-Mart, and I would not recommend to anybody to use a 56-footer with two people inside it to drive around the city of Ottawa. These things are produced for specialized purposes, and as long as they're used for that purpose, they are really great.
The difficulty with a voluntary survey as a replacement for a mandatory census is that, as my predecessor has explained, it does not capture the biases or deal with them. That would not be the case with a mandatory census. The reason we have those problems is that we know for a fact that there are certain geographical areas that would not provide the response rate one would want, and there are certain classes of individuals who have very low response rates. Indeed, these are exactly the people from whom you would want information if the government is to develop policies to deal with their issues. This would include aboriginals, people with low incomes, people with less education, visible minorities, and immigrants. Their response rates are quite low.
So a voluntary survey creates the problem that we will not get information from these groups, which of course will skew the averages in the overall research.
The other difficulty in a voluntary survey of a regular type is that when we get biases we can correct for those biases by comparing the information with the information available in a census. But if the census itself becomes voluntary, then there's no benchmark that one can use to actually fix the problem for the voluntary survey. That is the difficulty we would face.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. I'll be sharing my time with my colleague Mr. Gravelle.
Gentlemen, I'm very glad to have you here. I'm certainly disturbed, especially in your case, Mr. Sheikh, that you have to be here under these circumstances. I hope you will be kind with us, because as politicians we are extreme generalists. We don't know--none of us here knows--the best methodology for statistical accounting. That's not our job. Our job is to rely on, as you said, Mr. Sheikh, the non-partisan, professional civil service. This is what separates us from oligarchies, what separates us from dictatorships; we don't rely on sycophants, we rely on professional civil servants to give us advice.
Mr. Sheikh, you said the first step in the census is the consultation with stakeholders in order to develop anything. I tried to find out from the minister who the stakeholders he met with were. He did not meet with the Privacy Commissioner. He's refused to meet with key economists, the banks, the social planners.
So that leaves us...that he relied on advice from your department. The minister made very clear that he had the support of your department in not just scrapping the mandatory census but also monkeywrenching with the questions, depending on what the Conservatives believed was intrusive or not.
Yet you were forced to resign because, as you said in your statement this morning, your number one job is to protect the credibility of the agency. Is that a fair assessment of why you had to resign, given the minister's comments that he had the support of Statistics Canada for these changes?
I've served as the chair of the Conference of European Statisticians and also as the chair of the OECD statistics committee, and I've been president of the International Statistical Institute, so I have some awareness of what's happening in other countries. I can't say that it's my life's expertise.
The census in those Scandinavian countries is taking place in a completely different manner and is based on pre-existing registers, which are quite intrusive. Everybody who moves residence has to register with the police, compulsorily. Everybody who changes jobs has to have that registered, either by oneself or by the employer, compulsorily. When anybody enrols in an educational institution or leaves an educational institution, that enters a register. Income--earned and other kinds of income--enters in great detail those registers. Then, of course, once those are there, they can be brought together at relatively low cost and with a very high level of precision, because they're all based on compulsory collection.
Whether that's appropriate in Canada is not for me to say. If it were there, Statistics Canada would be very happy to use it and certainly consider how it compares with the traditional census.
What I would also say, however, is that it's very expensive if you consider it as a statistical collection. If statistics is a byproduct, then of course it's very cheap, because the data are already there; they can just be brought together for statistical purposes. But if it's put in place for the purposes of statistics, I suspect that it would be many times the cost of the census.
We are now going to continue the meeting of Tuesday, July 27, 2010.
I welcome our witnesses and members of the committee to the continuation of the 29th meeting of the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology. We're here today, pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), to study the long-form portion of the census.
In front of us today on this panel we have Monsieur Simard,
who is a professor at the Université du Québec in Chicoutimi.
We have Mr. McLeish, who is president of the Statistical Society of Canada. We have Professor Tanny, an associate professor at York University. We have Mr. Doucet, who is the English editor of Le Québécois Libre.
Welcome to all of you. We'll begin, without further ado, with questions and comments from members of the committee, beginning with Mr. Rota.
I would first like to mention that I am a geographer and urban planner in addition to being a professor at the Université du Québec in Chicoutimi. The census data are very useful for the applied research we do on the environment, transportation, residential construction, urban planning, and so on. This research is often conducted jointly with local municipalities, which are also major users of census data.
Personally, I am against the changes or the reform the government wants to implement right now. So I join with the Canadian Association of Geographers and the Canadian Institute of Planners, of which I am a member, and which have clearly expressed their opposition to these changes. We are opposed to this for a technical reason, meaning that it could seem like a rather minor change, but this minor change, when you know the methodology of surveys and the scientific methodology, may have serious consequences on the validity and reliability of the data from Statistics Canada.
It is a shame since Statistics Canada is a well-respected institution in Quebec, and in the rest of Canada, a source of pride for many. So the data may be deemed as less reliable, especially for academic research. That may hinder our research, making it less accurate than the research done in other countries. That may also affect private companies that conduct market studies to choose locations for restaurants or businesses. Major problems will also arise in the development of public policies, especially locally and regionally where data may be even more inaccurate.
So, there are a number of negative consequences. Finally, we ask ourselves why we should change something that works well. If we were on The Red Green Show, we would say: “If it ain't broken, don't fix it.”
I would like to take this opportunity to answer one of my opposition colleagues' questions.
This morning, my Liberal and Bloc colleagues said there were no problems in Canada, that 95% of Canadians filled out the long, detailed questionnaire on their private lives. They said that this debate was useless, that everything was going well and that people were happy to fill out the 40-page detailed questionnaire. What I would like to say to the members of the opposition is that people fill it out because they are threatened, either with a prison sentence or a fine. If the opposition members want to improve the participation rate, I suggest that they increase the threat, so that Canadians have to pay a $5,000 fine rather than $500, and that the prison sentence be three years rather than three months.
Mr. Chair, that is not the issue. It is really simple. It is a question of principle. In my opinion, people should be free to answer or not answer questions about their private lives. I would like to hear Mr. Doucet's opinion on that.
In a democratic society, do you believe that it is normal to threaten people with a prison sentence and a $500 fine if they refuse to answer questions on, for example, how many bedrooms they have in their houses or the time they leave their house to go to work?
I'd like to speak from two points of view.
First of all, I don't think this is a technical debate. The reason I don't think it's a technical debate.... There is the issue of the statistics. I'm not going to deny, as a statistician, that if one makes the form voluntary without any other incentives, then in fact there will certainly be a change in the response rate. One should know, however, that there has already been a change in the response rate. One should also know that there are other factors that have to be considered.
In 2006, Statistics Canada went to using the Internet. There are many people, for example, who don't know how to use the Internet and simply turn it over to their children. So we don't know exactly the quality of the information we're getting once the information is turned over on the Internet. It could be a 15-year-old going ahead and putting in the information rather than an adult, as we were doing in the past.
Now, I agree with the idea or the general principle that using the Internet is a less costly way and probably a much more efficient way of doing it, but what I'm saying is that there are other factors that come into play with regard to the quality of the information and how much people can rely on the information we have.
A second issue is that Canada is one of the few nations—a handful of nations—that actually do a full census every five years. There are rolling censuses being done continuously. The Americans have moved to what's called the “American community survey”. We have a national household survey.
The American community survey, of course, is going ahead and every month sending out a certain number of forms and requiring it. It is mandatory in the United States. I disagree with that, though. There is such a thing known as negative bias that does occur when you make a survey mandatory. There are studies on negative bias, and the question is, how do you overcome it?
Well, let's just take a look. Here is our survey. On one end of the scale you have the penalties. If you want to make sure that everybody does a particular survey, make it 10 years in jail, 10 years for not answering any questions--
I'm kind of baffled by the line of questioning from Mr. Bernier.
This morning Mr. Anderson tried to make us believe that the questions that were asked were questions from Statistics Canada, when all along they're questions from the government, to whom the census belongs. It belongs to the government.
So Mr. Bernier is the owner of the 2006 census. If he feels that strongly about imprisonment, or threats of fines, or the questions that are asked, can you give me an opinion as to why he wouldn't have changed it when he was industry minister? He had every opportunity to change the census, because the Minister of Industry owns that census. The government owns it.
Why didn't he change it, or why didn't he start the process of making changes, if he feels that strongly about it? Or is this just an issue that popped up because this is the summer and they're just trying to get media, maybe? I'm baffled.
Can anybody answer that?
I can't answer for Mr. Bernier, but I can answer for myself. I didn't have the opportunity to send in a brief, but I do have a short statement to make, if you wouldn't mind.
The end of the compulsory long-form census in favour of the voluntary national home survey has resulted in some lively, engaging, and fruitful discussion. Statistics Canada believes that “one of the major challenges is to clearly demonstrate the importance of the Census to Canadians”. This comes from an article, “Testing for the 2011 Census of Canada”, page 3.
The media has certainly assisted us in that endeavour at no monetary cost to Statistics Canada. For this, all taxpayers should be grateful. However, the media has not helped to place the debate in its proper context. The government's ending of the compulsory long-form census is part of the debate concerning an individual's rights versus the state's rights in a free and democratic society. An individual's duty to the state and the state's duty to the individual form an important part of this never-ending debate.
The government has concluded, correctly I believe, that an individual has the right to choose whether or not to participate in what amounts to a survey, even though it is called a long-form census. The issue is not the economic or social usefulness of a survey. The issue is not how many people have complained. The issue is not good citizenry. The issue is not how privately the information will be held. The issue is to what extent the state has the right to compel the individual to provide information. The issue is about when an individual has the right, without any explanation, to just say no.
There was a time in Canada when the police could stop an individual and demand identification upon threat of arrest. This right, clearly, is beneficial to the state in performing the obligation of preventing crime and apprehending criminals. Yet despite the benefits and likely cost savings, Canadian society has freely and firmly chosen to limit this right of the police. The uproar about a temporary Ontario law restoring this power to the police in a limited public space, and only during the G-8 and G-20 sessions, is evidence that Canadians have not changed their minds about the need for this right of the individual.
Compelling an individual because society benefits is one of those oft-talked-about slippery slopes. For concreteness, I give two examples, neither of which I endorse.
Mandatory voting is the first one. Some countries, such as Australia, do have mandatory voting for their federal elections. Canada does not, notwithstanding that voter turnout rates have declined. A free society should benefit when its citizenry vote. Compelling completion of the long-form census is not far from compelling revelation of candidate preferences in a much more anonymous process.
The second example is requiring all children to attend public schools during the hours that public schools are in session. The argument is that the public schools would be strengthened, children from all backgrounds would mix, and better citizenry would result. Children would still be entitled to attend private schools at other times, and so are not deprived of their private education—or at least this is what the proponents might argue.
Besides, the gain to society outweighing the parents' rights is eerily similar to the argument being made for the long form—
First I have a quick clarification on Mr. Gravelle's comments regarding the last census. Of course, the order in council that established the 2006 census was dated March 22, 2005, under the former Liberal government. This is in fact the first census that this government is responsible for.
Moving to the question of the day here, it seems there might be some confusion about the question. It seems that some people feel this question is a statistical question. But the reality is that the fundamental question that we're debating is about our free and democratic society here in Canada.
In a free and democratic society, which we have in Canada, should individuals be threatened with jail time or fines for refusing to answer, for whatever reason, questions like how many bedrooms are in your house; how much housework did you do last week; or how much time did you spend with your kids last week? Those are all questions from the 2006 census. In a free and democratic society, should someone be threatened with jail time or fines for not wanting to answer those questions, for whatever reason? It doesn't matter what the reason is.
The Liberal Party, of course, has said, yes, that should be the case. Our party says, no, it shouldn't be the case, and we are making a change because of that. That's what this debate is about today.
Of course, then we answer the statistical question and bring in the experts to answer the statistical questions about how best do we collect the information we need to collect. We rely on the experts at Statistics Canada to do that.
Mr. McLeish, I want to go to the fundamental first question. In your view, should Canadians like your daughter--you were talking about your daughter--be threatened with jail time or a fine for not wanting to answer the question, “How much housework did you do last week?”, if she just doesn't want to answer the question?
Thank you, Mr. Garneau.
Like my colleagues, I agree that the census is the ideal tool. A voluntary survey can give rise to very specific biases. The big problem, as Mr. Drummond mentioned, is that even though we can still obtain something that works, we are not sure. The census is a very specific tool that helps all health sectors. It tells us if there are economic issues in terms of education and so forth.
We're able to work at the level of a community to better understand how to tailor and adjust programs. It's the only instrument of its kind in our country, and until we develop something better we're stuck with it. It's been studied over so many years that we fully understand its error rate, when it's over-represented and when it's under-represented in certain areas.
For the health and well-being of Canadians, we need this instrument. It impacts policy planners in regions. In fact, public health officials have been sending me e-mails left, right, and centre, and giving me specific examples in their communities of how this is impactful.
For example, if you want a dental program here in Ottawa or in Toronto, where do you put it? Where do your health sector resources go if you're the public health officer in that community? Well, with the census information you're able to target those resources. Similarly, you're able to take those resources away or plan away from areas that you think might not need them, such as wealthy neighbourhoods in sectors of Toronto. So it's an invaluable tool at the community level and for all sectors of government.
My opinions are clear in the paper. I can say more, but I'll start with that.
I am a physician, but I do not work in the public sector. So I am more familiar with the issues in the private sector. However, my journal publishes a lot of articles on public health in Canada. Canadian researchers use that data to write for our publication.
The impact on Canadian researchers would be huge. I have been told that a voluntary survey would cost $30 million more. The economic impact is much greater. In Montreal and the Quebec regions, they need that public health tool to determine where to target programs, for example, in the areas of Montreal where people's socioeconomic situations are less favourable, where there are immigrant populations. It could really affect program delivery at the regional level.
Yesterday, I sent an email mentioning that I would be appearing before this committee. Ten or so doctors in the public sector sent me a list of the programs that would be directly affected if the census were to disappear. I have here a list of 15 to 20 programs, such as community dental care programs, public health programs and even influenza A (H1N1) vaccination programs. How will we manage those programs? Which communities will they target? How will we know who is doing well and who is not? How will we obtain a description of those people?
The census sampling is much more important than people know. It forms the basis of all of our surveys. Statistics Canada conducts 250 to 280 surveys a year and uses the census for all the other surveys. Canada's public health researchers use that census information for data matching. They are able to look in large Canadian databases and see what the data means when matched with the census data. So the major impact will be twofold: first, on all the other surveys and second, on all the research linked to other databases. Canada is very good in that regard.
I brought a number of documents with me.
How many Canadians will be diagnosed with diabetes between 2007 and 2017? It's a study done with the StatsCan survey. I have about 20 of these. Major impact studies--on obesity, on diabetes, on aging in our populations--are all using the long-form sample, as was stated before.
So it would be more intrusive than what we have now.
The other interesting question is at what point do people draw the line on their own personal moral privacy and are willing to be dragged off to jail? We haven't seen anybody being dragged off to jail yet, but apparently there are certain questions that trigger that.
Mr. Anderson said this morning that renovation was one such issue. He seemed to take personal offence to renovation. I find it surprising from a party that stood up in the House and waved their renovation tax credit. I would have thought that they based that on data that they may have gotten from the census, and are very supportive of renovations and having tax credits.
Nonetheless, let's say, for example, that 100 of Mr. Anderson's constituents are deeply offended by anybody asking them if they've ever renovated their house. Is it not possible to have those questions removed? Is there not a system, before the census is brought forward, where there's a review of the workable questions? As we understand it, the minister can even say, “Under my watch there is absolutely no way that you're going to interfere with people's privacy and ask if they've ever renovated their home”.
If we remove the question on renovation, does it change the nature of the census?
Mr. Drummond, with an inaccuracy level of 19% to 20%, how difficult would it be for the Minister of Finance for Ontario, who said last week on July 20 that in every spending and tax decision, the census information assists them? You sat, sir, in the federal finance ministry, I believe as deputy minister. Without accurate, reliable information, or with information that's skewed 19% to 20%, how difficult will it be for the minister, Jim Flaherty, when he makes his next budget decisions or future budget decisions, should he still be minister, in terms of reliability of information?
Clearly, one in five not reporting is going to create a significant skew. In your professional opinion and with your experience, what does that do for data collected generally? How is it going to impact on, let's say, a decision by our Conservative colleagues to slash social spending if they don't have accurate information on what social spending should be for the makeup of the country?
Again, the fact that one in five might not respond is not terribly relevant. Having something like 25 million Canadians respond to a survey would be overwhelming. Angus Reid would do a survey with 1% and consider that to be a huge survey. The labour force survey is only 40,000 households, and we base a lot on that, so the size is not.... The key question is whether the 19% who didn't respond would be representative of the overall population. So it's the skewness within the response rather than the overall response.
Again, we can only draw on the results of previous surveys, particularly the experiment in the United States in 2003, where they did a pilot project on a voluntary basis and benchmarked it against the actual survey. The people who did not respond were highly unrepresentative of the total population.
But you don't really know, without having done that, exactly where the non-representation would be. We certainly overwhelmingly would speculate that they would be at the two extremes of the income distribution, and they would tend to be in first nations communities and our recent immigration.
If we knew what that bias was, even that would not be a problem, but we have no reason for doing it a priori. If, for example, in 2011 we did one more run of the mandatory survey and we ran a voluntary one on a pilot project at the same time, then we could benchmark them. Then I think we'd probably be okay, because we would know how to adjust for those biases.
Good afternoon, gentlemen.
In my view, the big question here has more to do with science. The census should be scientific, it should be based on a scientific method, and every census should provide information on trends, profiles and the progression or regression of society.
Certain areas have been mentioned. This morning, I heard Minister Clément say that it was a risk but that the government was going to send a voluntary long-form questionnaire to 30% of the population. You know the story.
I have heard the question here and elsewhere in various forms. We have heard about trends, the loss of continuity, less reliability and benchmarks. Those are all components in question, but it is still the scientific component that takes precedence, in my opinion. That is the heart of the matter.
In addition to that, we talked about the confidentiality aspect. I heard the witness from British Columbia say that this change would allow us to know the name of someone's spouse, when everything is confidential.
Now, since there are so many of you and since I have less than five minutes left, I will direct my questions first to Mr. Bricker of IPSOS Canada, then to Mr. Boyko, Mr. Hébert and Mr. Drummond.
Will we suffer, from a scientific perspective, if the Conservatives' plan goes forward?
I want to clarify something that Mr. Anderson is alluding to.
The only thing I'm concerned about--I'm not concerned about the long-form census whatsoever--is that the government has the power to change any question it wants, and it has the power to remove the jail time, and it's not doing it. That's my concern; it's not the long-form census.
I guess Mr. Anderson and some of these Conservatives have selective hearing. We've heard time and time again today from experts about how much damage this would do to Statistics Canada, to the data collecting, but they refuse to hear what the experts are saying.
I'd like to ask this of each member of the panel. If the census were not mandatory, what would this do to the poor, who are least likely to answer the census if it's not mandatory?
What would this do to the minorities and the poor, Madame Kenny?
In northern communities we wear many different hats. Today I can answer for all of the different hats I wear, be they as president of Pauktuutit, which automatically makes me a member of ITK; and as mayor of Iqaluit and president of our association, which also automatically makes me a member of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. So it has an impact on all of the organizations I work with.
Firstly, I just want to state that to keep Canada strong, we need to know how the country is changing, where people live, work, and raise their families. This census helps us do that.
[Witness speaks in Inuktitut ]
As Inuit, because of our small numbers within our great nation, sometimes we fall through the cracks, but this data brings real information that's needed in all levels of government and non-government organizations.
Mr. Chair, I would like to put a few questions to Ms. Kenny.
I think that you understand the changes made by our government very well. In 2006, there was a 40-page, detailed questionnaire and 20% of Canadians were forced to fill it out and were liable to imprisonment or fines if they refused to do so.
This year, the minister has made this questionnaire voluntary, in order to respect people's freedom of choice.
That said however, among the seven census questions there is still one mandatory question involving official languages, question number 7: “What is the language that the person first learned at home in childhood and still understands?”
There is also a sub-question, and I quote:
If this person no longer understands the first language learned, indicate the second language learned. English. French. Other.
And so I expect that this question number 7 is very important to you. If I understand your position correctly, you would like all of the other questions which were a part of the 2006 census to be kept, but you would like them also to be mandatory.
I thank all of the witnesses for appearing here. Since you are the last panel, I thought I would just take a moment or two to perhaps try to recap what I have heard here today and maybe clarify one or two other points, because I think there is some confusion.
The first point of clarification is that our government is not advocating scrapping the long-form census. There have been some suggestions by opposition members that that is our plan. It is not. We agree that much of the information gleaned from the long-form census is valuable to Statistics Canada. However, the only question is what should be mandatory and what should be voluntary. We're in agreement that the short-form census should continue to be mandatory, but our position is that the questions contained in the long-form census should be voluntary.
I suppose there can be some discussion as to whether all of the questions currently on the long-form census should be included, or whether some should be amended or dropped, as has been suggested by some of the previous panellists. But we are not saying that we want to scrap it. We're only saying that it should be voluntary because there has to be a balance, we believe, between the privacy of individuals and the coercion or intrusiveness imposed upon Canadians, and the need for government to get information that would be valuable to client groups across Canada.
I would point out as well that the only panellist we had appear before us today who deals with voluntary surveys, analyzing and compiling those surveys on a full-time basis, is Mr. Darrell Bricker. Mr. Bricker's testimony suggested that 80% of Canadians would be willing, on a voluntary basis, to answer the long-form census. He went on to say that in his opinion even those people who might tend to be under-represented could somehow be convinced to give up that information. In other words, he says that in his professional opinion, doing it on a voluntary basis could get the proper information needed by the government. And he is the only one who has appeared before us who has expertise in that area.
I would point out to you as well that what we currently have are threats or coercion being used to obtain information for the long-form census. Ms. Stoddart, who is the Privacy Commissioner of this country, has stated that in her opinion that is not appropriate. We agree. We totally agree.
So my first question would be for Mr. Coleman. What is your opinion and your organization's opinion of the coercion, the threats of imprisonment and fines, being attached to the long-form census? Should those be continued or, in your opinion, should we be going to a voluntary method of collecting that information?
Yes, I think the biggest challenge for this committee is to deal with that issue by itself. I think it's a critical issue that has to be dealt with. I think in a civilized country like Canada, the threat of throwing somebody in jail because they don't want to fill out a census is ludicrous.
I believe there is good information to be gleaned in this area. But if you listen to all of these committee meetings, and I've been to several, the one special interest group that is not here right now is the Canadian taxpayer, who is afraid of big government and doesn't like big government and understands the duty to make sure information is there and can be valued and used in a proper way. But to think that somebody is going to be thrown in jail....
There are horror stories, as Greg Weston testified today, of people being intimidated and called at home. You must deal with this in your committee and stop that from going forward.
I don't believe you get accurate information when you threaten somebody like that, either. That's my personal belief. I think there has to be a balance between the privacy issue...the fact that we are a civilized country and not a banana republic that can use the threat of a gun to put pen to paper, if you will. I think that process is a really important issue for this committee to deal with.
I honestly believe some of these people today, too--there are all kinds of voluntary surveys done in this country for consumer products or what have you. They get very accurate information from voluntary surveys and polls and questions. There are dozens of cases. Banks use them, consumer products....
So I think you can get good information from a voluntary situation. I think there's a better explanation required for the Canadian taxpayers of what's going on here as well.
Mr. Coleman, I'll have you maybe elaborate a little bit further, if you could.
As we've talked about here, there seems to be a little bit of confusion over the fundamental question we're talking about. Some think it's a statistical question. Of course, when the government took the measures we took, the steps we took, we took them from a more principled basis on a primary question of freedom and democracy: Should Canadians be forced to answer questions?
We've gone through many of those questions about the number of bedrooms, how much housework they do, and how much time they spend with their kids. Should Canadians be forced to answer those questions if they don't want to answer them, for whatever reason they might not want to answer, under threat of jail time or under threat of fines?
We can even set the jail time aside. It sounds as though everyone is unanimous that we get rid of the jail time. But with even the fines, should somebody in a poorer financial situation, someone in a lower-income household, which, it's been articulated--by Mr. Garneau, for example--as more likely to not want to answer the questions, for whatever reason...? Should someone in a low-income financial situation be faced with a $500 fine for not wanting to answer how much time they spend with their kids? Could you comment on that, and maybe on the alternatives to this coercion, this forced answering of these questions?
Look, I think everybody believes the government should deliver services efficiently, so I think you have an obligation to find the information the best way you can at the cheapest cost to the taxpayers and make sure you can deal with a lot of the concerns that were raised here. But I just honestly don't believe, in a society such as Canada, that by forcing people to answer questions....
I'm sorry about the reference to Greg Weston, but I had read a column and he was talking about that.
But people do get intimidated; they get called, and get threatened with jail. A lot of people are afraid of big government and the bureaucracy that goes with it, as I said earlier. I don't know if you get great information with that threat, too, so I think you have to find a way to educate Canadians on why these censuses are important, deal with questions that are relevant, and drop the ones that quite frankly aren't.
I read it on the plane today, and there are a lot of questions in that survey that I think give you no value. I think you have to work on getting questions that can make the country more effective, more efficient, more opportunistic in today's global economy. But to go back to taxpayers and the citizens and say “Do this or we'll throw you in jail” is just something that a government of any stripe should not be proud of.
This shouldn't be a political conversation. This should be one that we all agree on. Throwing somebody in jail or the threat of it should not be there in a country like Canada.