Statement made on 10 March 2011 by Senator James Cowan
Hon. James S. Cowan (Leader of the Opposition):
Honourable senators, the government's decision to abandon the mandatory long-form census and replace it with a survey — the so-called National Household Survey — is misguided and indefensible.
The history of the census is inextricably intertwined with the history of human civilization, and that is no accident or mere happenstance. The concept of a census is so fundamental to civil society that they have been conducted throughout the millennia and across the globe.
Some honourable senators might recall that, during an earlier debate, I pointed to Moses arguing with God as one of the earliest sources of our much-venerated right of freedom of expression. Moses conducted one of the earliest censuses, as well. When the Israelites were wandering in the Sinai Desert after the exodus from Egypt, the Book of Numbers tells us that God commanded Moses to "conduct the adult men"; in effect, to conduct a census. That book describes several censuses conducted by Moses.
The great civilization of ancient Egypt conducted a periodic census; the first one apparently took place in 3,340 B.C. A census was recorded in China over 4,000 years ago.
The word "census" comes from the Latin censere, meaning "to assess." Our practice of conducting a census every five years seems to have come from the Roman Empire, where Servius Tullius ordered the first one in the 6th Century B.C. According to the New Testament, it was due to a Roman census that Mary and Joseph travelled from Galilee to Bethlehem where Jesus was born.
In the Islamic world, the Rashidun Caliphate in the 6th Century began a tradition of conducting a regular census.
In the United Kingdom, the first census was conducted in the 7th Century. Four centuries later, in 1086, William the Conqueror ordered that a comprehensive and very detailed census be taken of his new realm. That census resulted in the creation of a document known as the Domesday Book, so called because of the clarity and finality that resulted, like the Day of Judgment.
Honourable senators, it is no accident that the world's great civilizations each conducted a census. Greatness emerges when there is a strong connection between the government and its citizens, and when the laws and policies respond to the real needs and ambitions of the people. However, to do that, one needs first to know what those real needs and ambitions are. That comes from knowing clear, basic facts about one's fellow citizens.
However, if a government does not fundamentally believe in a role for government — if it believes the best thing it can do is to get out of the way — then an accurate census is a nuisance. If no one has the facts about how many people can find work, how many newcomers to Canada cannot access language training, or how many of our Aboriginal families are living in housing that is falling apart, then no one can call to you account for your failure to take action or for the consequences of funding cuts. How much nicer it is to tell people that you are not asking the questions because you do not want to intrude on their privacy, rather than admitting you are not asking the questions because then you would be expected to do something about the problems that are exposed.
Honourable senators, it is often said that information is power. Traditionally, what is gleaned from the census is public information that is available to all Canadians who can then use it to come to their own conclusions about whether their country is on the right track and whether their government is focusing on the correct priorities. The government of Prime Minister Harper has decided that the citizens of Canada will no longer have that information and power.
Let me recall how this unfortunate episode with the long-form census began.
On Saturday, June 26, 2010, an order-in-council appeared in the Canada Gazette, setting out the questions that would appear in the 2011 census. Honourable senators, for the first time, the questions that are asked in the so-called companion long-form census were missing.
After members of the other place had left Ottawa to return to their constituencies, the quiet publication of the order-in-council in the Canada Gazette seemed calculated to avoid notice and public comment. What a miscalculation that turned out to be.
Extraordinary stories began to appear in the newspapers. A column on July 16 by Dan Gardner of Canwest listed some of the organizations that had written "to formally protest the government's misguided decision" to scrap the mandatory long-form census. They included the Statistical Society of Canada, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the Canadian Marketing Association, and the Canadian Association for Business Economics.
A few days later, on July 19, more than 20 signatories representing a broad range of organizations wrote to Minister Clement to request a meeting. They expressed their "great concern" about the government's decision, saying the loss of the long-form information "will cause considerable economic and social costs."
The signatories included Roger Martin, the Dean of the Rotman School of Management; Don Drummond, former chief economist of the TD Bank and former Assistant Deputy Minister of Finance here in Ottawa; Mel Cappe, former Clerk of the Privy Council; Ken Georgetti of the Canadian Labour Congress; Dr. Cordell Neudorf, the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Public Health Association; Roger Gibbins of the Canada West Foundation; and Marni Cappe of the Canadian Institute of Planners. Their request for a meeting with Minister Clement was not granted.
Honourable senators, the media also expressed their concerns with the Harper government's decision. The Globe and Mail has written so many critical editorials that I cannot keep track of them. Even the National Post has come out against the move. And there has been much international criticism. The British magazine Nature published several pieces, including an editorial headed "Save the census: The Canadian government should rethink its decision to change the way census data are collected." This leading international scientific journal wrote:
The incident comes amid a growing sense of unease about the right-leaning Canadian federal government's apparent disregard for science-based policy . . . Now the government is threatening to undermine the system that collects the data needed for a multitude of other evidence-based decisions.
Stephen Fienberg of Carnegie Mellon University, and Kenneth Prewitt of Columbia University, in an article entitled "Save Your Census," wrote:
Government statistics are no less vital to a nation's scientific infrastructure than is an observatory or particle accelerator, and need stable funding and protection. Detailed, reliable, demographic data are used in a vast array of policy decisions and research studies, from determining how many hospitals are needed to tracking whether the ongoing poverty of a group can be linked to health or education. Census data provide the gold standard against which all other studies on such issues can be corrected and judged.
Petitions to reinstate the "gold standard" census have been signed by thousands of Canadians who understand the importance of serious evidence in which to ground serious public policy.
Two former Chief Statisticians of Canada spoke out publicly against the decision: Dr. Ivan Fellegi and Dr. Sylvia Ostry. Dr. Ostry also served as the chair of the Economic Council of Canada, as Deputy Minister Of International Trade, and senior adviser for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney at international summits. She used the words "shocking" and "ridiculous" to describe the Harper government's about decision on the census.
A third Chief Statistician, Dr. Munir Sheikh, resigned because of this decision.
On September 9, an extraordinary letter was sent to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. It was signed by the former Governor of the Bank of Canada, David Dodge, two former clerks of the Privy Council — Mel Cappe and Alex Himelfarb — and by Dr. Fellegi. The signatories pointed out the indispensable role that official statistics fulfill in democratic societies. It urged the Prime Minister to allow the Chief Statistician to decide how the census should be conducted. They warned, in stark terms, that the government's decision "put the well-earned credibility and respected international standing of Statistics Canada at risk."
Honourable senators, can any of you recall when four such senior public servants — two former clerks of the Privy Council, a former Governor of the Bank of Canada and a former Chief Statistician of Canada — publicly expressed their disagreement with a government decision? These are individuals who understand what governments need in order to best serve Canadians.
In their view, the decision of the government on the census was so misguided and potentially damaging to Canada that it warranted taking the unprecedented step that they took.
That letter alone should have given the government reason to pause.
Provincial governments joined in the ever-growing list of those dismayed by the decision. On September 27, the Government of Ontario and the Government of Quebec took the unusual step of writing to Minister Clement to express their "serious concerns." The governments described how reliable data from the long-form census is essential in supporting post-secondary education and training programs. It provides critical information about groups such as recent immigrants, Aboriginal people, unemployed youth, and adults with low skills.
The letter stated,
Good public policy must be based on good information . . .
The letter concluded as follows: We believe that the decision by the federal government to eliminate the Census long-form was a mistake and that it will impact negatively on the provision of services to the people of our provinces. We would therefore urge you to reverse this course of action as soon as possible.
The Harper government responded with its usual reflexive mode: divide and attack.
This is how The Globe and Mail reported on the government's response to the letter from Canada's two largest provinces:
Mr. Clement . . . briskly dismissed the missives from the provinces. It's the same tune that they've had," he said. "They're users of the data, they like having the data. They like having the Government of Canada enforcing, through criminal penalties, fines and imprisonment."
Honourable senators, the federal government conducts the national census. All levels of government, as well as thousands of Canadians outside of government, use the results to benefit all.
This is not an issue of freeloading. It is a very efficient use of taxpayer dollars. As we all know, it is the same taxpayer.
Instead of multiple payments by different governments and organizations to collect the same information, Canadian taxpayers pool their money through Statistics Canada, and the resulting information is available to us all.
That is how the system has worked and how it should work.
Honourable senators, Canadians across the country should be able to know their provinces and cities can access the quality information they need in the most cost-effective manner possible. Firewalls have no place in our federation, no matter who may wish to erect them.
To add to the controversy, the Harper government has acknowledged that its new National Household Survey will be more expensive to administer than the mandatory long-form census. Here the government does not seem to have a clear plan.
Industry Minister Clement told a committee in the other place:
There is an additional $30 million cost for a public campaign launched to convince Canadians to fill out the questionnaire.
Senator LeBreton has referred to this campaign here many times.
Now we learn, from an interview that the new Chief Statistician of Canada gave to The Globe and Mail, that the purpose of the extra money is not for advertising or communication of the new National Household Survey. In fact, the chief statistician could not say how much is earmarked to advertise the new survey, except to say, "It's not a large amount."
I don't even know if we've got an estimate right at the moment about what the precise amount is.
On December 14 The Canadian Press reported that the total cost of the 2011 census could reach $660 million. This figure was confirmed by the chief statistician during that recent interview. That cost is in stark contrast to the cost of the 2006 Census, which came in at $573 million. That $573 million included a one-time purchase for software and equipment of $43 million.
Honourable senators, a decision by a prime minister who describes himself as a trained economist to spend more money to obtain something of lesser value is a bizarre approach to take with taxpayers' hard-earned dollars.
Of course, the $660 million would not include the extra costs to the municipal and provincial governments, and others who have relied upon that information and are now being thrown to their own devices by the Harper Government. Indeed, the chief statistician revealed that the government's plan includes hoping that municipal governments, provincial governments, Canadian businesses and "ethnic organizations" will use their "methods of communicating" to get the word out and encourage Canadians to complete the survey. It seems rich to expect other governments and organizations to promote something they know will yield inferior results for them.
It is not this cavalier attitude toward the public purse alone that has so upset so many professional organizations and other levels of government. The information collected in the mandatory long-form census is absolutely critical to basic decision-making — to deciding where to build what kinds of roads and how to time the traffic lights, to where to build schools and hospitals, how big should they be and with what specialities. Where should a children's hospital be located? Does a community need a geriatric facility? Where should it be located and what services should it provide?
The other day the Winnipeg Free Press — and Senator Chaput referred to this report yesterday — reported that the Manitoba government anticipates spending up to $400,000 to persuade Manitobans to fill out the survey. The Manitoba Chief Statistician recently said the government could face everything from reduced federal transfer payments to a shortage of accurate information on which to base critical health and policy spending decisions if not enough Manitobans fill out the forms. He said:
We could get a misleading picture. If 50 per cent or lower —
— fill out the forms —
— what have we got? There is the potential here for a statistical catastrophe.
Those are the words of the Chief Statistician of Manitoba.
The census is used by health officials in pandemic planning, something that all of us can improve, given the experience last year with H1N1. In September, 15 top health officials and researchers held coordinated news conferences in Toronto, Ottawa, Sudbury, Edmonton and Winnipeg to criticize the decision. We heard the Toronto Medical Officer of Health say that the health of Torontonians will suffer without access to the crucial long-form census data.
He said that the city's most vulnerable citizens — immigrants, the poor and those in marginalized communities — are at greatest risk.
Paul Hébert, editor-in-chief of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, has been clear:
The census is a very specific tool that helps all health sectors. . . . 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 . . . For the health and well-being of Canadians, we need this instrument.
The census is also used by Canadian businesses in deciding, for example, where to locate a store or build an apartment building. The Dean of the Rotman School of Management, Roger Martin, told The Globe and Mail that the government's abandonment of the mandatory long-form census will hurt the ability of Canadian companies to compete globally and boost productivity, while preventing Canadians from having what he called a "sophisticated economy that uses information to its best."
John Pliniussen, a business professor at Queen's, called the decision, "a huge business blunder," that will result in lost jobs and more bankruptcies, as businesses will not have the solid information they require to make decisions.
Mark Carney, the current Governor of the Bank of Canada, told The Globe and Mail editorial board that the bank no longer may be able to rely on data from Statistics Canada because of the change from the mandatory long form to the proposed National Household Survey.
The Bank of Canada, as the article describes, "has long focused on productivity, labour and households as a means of assessing the country's economy and steering it toward a better footing."
Mr. Carney told The Globe and Mail editorial board that the changes to the census could have an impact on the quality of research in these important areas, and force the bank to supplement the information with its own research. He said, "there's a non-trivial range of data that could be affected."
Honourable senators, the Harper Government keeps warning Canadians that our emergence from the economic recession is by no means assured, that Canada faces an uncertain economic future. Then our economist/Prime Minister decides this is the ideal time to deprive the Bank of Canada of important information on which it has relied to fulfil its role on working to strengthen our economy.
Is the irony of this situation really lost on the government? The irony is compounded by the fact that the Prime Minister, who has made the decision, earlier in his own life made use of the census data information when writing his master's thesis. Now that he is in charge, he decides other students will not have the same opportunity that he was afforded while at university — how thoughtful.
Even the Canadian Association of Police Boards called on the government to restore the mandatory long-form census. They said in a statement:
. . . police agencies throughout Canada depend on reliable, comprehensive demographic statistical information provided by Statistics Canada to establish policing priorities and to determine policing services for their communities.
So much for helping our police forces to be tough or smart on crime. It looks more like the government is determined that police forces across the line will join its "dumb on crime" approach.
The Canadian Women's Foundation wrote to Minister Clement to express their concern over the impact of the cancellation of the mandatory long-form census on programs and policies that help women. They wrote:
Our funding programs focus on women who are most in need, including low-income women, Aboriginal women, newcomer women, young women, disabled women, and visible minority women. These are the very groups who will be underrepresented in the census data if the mandatory long-form is discontinued; this will reduce their access to government services and severely constrain our ability to develop an effective funding response.
Indeed, questions have been raised that the drafting of the new proposed National Household Survey has notably omitted a crucial question — so-called question 33 — a three-part question that, according to a report in the Toronto Star:
. . . has been in place since Canada made commitments at the 1995 UN Conference on Women in Beijing. The question gathered data on how much time people spent on unpaid work: domestic chores, child care and attending to the needs of elderly relatives and friends.
The Harper Government is not interested in finding out how many hours Canadians spend looking after their own and other children, or providing unpaid care to seniors. This government has no interest in the challenges facing Canadian families squeezed between the conflicting demands on their time, taking care of children, parents and paid work. That question is gone. For Canadian taxpayers and Canadian families, corporate tax cuts will solve everything.
Honourable senators, I could go on listing the many ways in which Canadians have said that this census information is critical to their work and well-being.
A voluntary survey simply is not an adequate substitute.
Ivan Fellegi, the former Chief Statistician of Canada, explained that "any voluntary survey is intrinsically biased" and that "bias, unlike sampling error, cannot be estimated from survey data themselves." He described how:
. . . most users . . . 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 next time they are measured in a biased manner, the results become basically not usable for that purpose. . . . they really become unusable for purposes of making comparisons . . .
Don Drummond, the former chief economist of the TD Bank, and now chair of the Advisory Panel on Labour Market Information, has described how with a voluntary survey:
. . . you would get an over-weighting of — let's face it — White middle-class Canadians and a dramatic under-weighting of some other groups, particularly the poor and the very wealthy, particularly some recent immigrants, and certainly First Nations.
Over time you could probably sort that out, but it would probably take three or four cycles of a survey to understand what the weights are. In the meantime, I think that the data could actually be worse than not having anything. It could be misleading.
Bank governors, bank economists, chief statisticians, former Clerks of the Privy Council, business leaders and health officials have all expressed their concerns. Senator LeBreton's response has been, "Don't worry; be happy. It will all work out."
We are to rely on her great confidence that, when Canadians receive this household survey, they will fill it out honestly and fairly. The problem is that her own actions and those of some of her own colleagues prove that this is not true.
The government leader herself has told this chamber on several occasions how intrusive she found the questions in the 2006 long-form census, and how she absolutely did not want to answer them and only did so because she knew she had to. Honourable senators, these were questions in a census being conducted by her own government, of which she was cabinet minister. She told us that she would not have answered them voluntarily.
Her colleague, Senator Greene, told this chamber in great detail and with surprising pride how he let the form sit for many weeks, only to fill it out because it was mandatory. He tried to send it in partially completed and ultimately asked his teenage daughter to fill it out, in his words "as a kind of game," making up the answers as she went along.
These are individuals who support the Conservative government that was conducting the census. Senator LeBreton was and remains a member of the executive branch of this government, yet she was very clear that she completed the census not because she is a fine, upstanding citizen who recognizes her civic duty, but because it was mandatory — in other words, because it was coercive.
Senator Greene not only did not complete it himself, he told his teenage daughter to make up the answers, to treat it as a game.
What sort of examples are these for Canadians who will receive the voluntary household survey?
If Senator LeBreton is chosen to receive the new household survey, will she now answer the intrusive questions because the coercive element has been removed? She has already told us that it was only because there was a coercive element that she filled it out the last time. Where is the logic in any of this?
In my opinion, it is not that this government cares whether or not there is a census, or whether or not the census is a burden on Canadians; rather it is that, fundamentally, this government really does not care about the real burdens that weigh upon Canadians.
It does not care whether parents are able to access affordable child care. It does not care how hard Canadians are struggling to meet the needs of aging parents while caring for their young children, all the while balancing the demands of paid work. It does not care how long Canadians are spending commuting to and from work, or what methods of transportation they are using for those commutes. It does not care what level of education Canadians are achieving or what kind of work they are able to find upon graduation. It does not want to know whether or not our immigrants are successfully integrating into our society or finding work in their field. The concerns of single parents do not worry the members of the Harper government. They really do not care very much about whether or not child support is being paid.
Members of the Harper government have sought to justify their position by pointing to the questions that they consider to be too intrusive. Let us talk a bit about some of these so-called intrusive questions.
For example, some ministers have asked, apparently rhetorically, what business is it of the government to ask how many bedrooms there are in a house?
Well, the Mayor of Iqaluit, a board member of the Tapiriit Kanatami, has spoken to this question, and this is what she said:
You have to remember that in the long form there are questions such as how many bedrooms are in the house. In Arctic communities it is too cold to be homeless. There's hidden homelessness. We'll never get that data if that long form is not filled out.
This government evidently does not care if 15 people are crammed into a two-bedroom apartment in an isolated Northern community.
Is this an issue, as some people have suggested, for the famous Conservative political base — a bone to be tossed by the Harper government to mollify the right wing, increasingly fed up with unprecedented deficits and reckless spending on fake lakes and photo ops?
Let me read honourable senators a passage from an article in the Ottawa Citizen on August 5, quoting Mr. Gibbins, head of the right-wing Canada West Foundation:
I live in a hardcore Conservative constituency in the heart of Calgary. There are probably more people worried about flying saucers landing in their backyard than there are worried about the long-form census.
Instilling worry and fear has become the hallmark of this government. As my leader, Mr. Ignatieff, noted recently, the Prime Minister "tried to make Canadians afraid of something they had never been afraid of once in their lives, which was the census-taker. . . . All across the country, people turn to me and they said, you know, I've got things I do worry about, but the census taker?"
What has occurred with this issue has reinforced a concern I have held for a long time. The Harper government cares less about facts than it does about its ideology. One commentator, an economist, wrote that with this decision, we have officially moved from evidence-based decision-making to decision-based evidence-making.
Tom Flanagan, the former close adviser to Prime Minister Harper, once said, "It does not have to be true. It just has to be plausible."
Perhaps we should start using that word coined by the American satirist Stephen Colbert during the era of former President George W. Bush: "truthiness."
Indeed, in an apparent further imitation of President Bush, Prime Minister Harper reportedly encouraged his party loyalists to trust their guts, not experts or evidence. Frighteningly, he was reportedly speaking about his party's law and order agenda.
Honourable senators, Canadians deserve better. They deserve serious public policy, formulated on the basis of real facts, not "truthy factoids" carefully selected and shaped to support an ideologically driven agenda.
As Mr. Ignatieff said, "Wouldn't it be better to run the government on the basis of evidence and facts and statistics, than ideology, dogmatism and fear?"
I am troubled when I see the government suppressing the truth, when political staffers prevent the release of information to Canadians and when government scientists are not free to speak out on the issues on which they have extraordinary expertise. I am troubled when we have a law and order agenda driven in wilful blindness of the facts.
We have people with deep, serious knowledge of issues denied access to decision-makers, ignored or actually dismissed from their jobs. We have seen the depths to which this government will sink, smearing the reputations of Canadians who have devoted their lives to public service for Canadians.
Now, with this decision to scrap the mandatory long-form census, the government is trying to prevent even the collection of facts, trying to control what Canadians know about what is really happening in their country and their communities.
There is a head-in-the-sand saying, which goes "What you do not know cannot hurt you." The Harper government has taken it a step further; for them it is: "What you do not know cannot hurt it, so out with the census."
To make matters worse, there are rumblings that this government may be planning to go even further. Recently we saw a release from the Macdonald-Laurier Institute of a so-called policy study that challenged the methodology and even the objectivity of Statistics Canada's work on crime statistics.
We subsequently learned that the author of the study used to work as a Conservative political staffer to then Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day. Yes, that is the same minister who told Canadians that we need more prisons to lock up all the criminals who committed crimes that were never reported to police, so of course these "criminals" were never charged or convicted. Small wonder that this former staffer now writes a paper deriding Statistics Canada for not reporting unreported crimes.
This study, by the way, has been roundly criticized since its release as deeply flawed in its methodology.
We recently learned again from the newspapers that the government is contemplating further changes to the census for 2016, using a register-based model that would mine data from health files and education files, to name a few.
Honourable senators, I think many Canadians would be concerned to think that their government could access all their personal files like that. I suspect many would choose the old form of mandatory long-form census over that kind of Big Brother intrusion.
I mentioned The Globe and Mail's recent long interview of Wayne Smith, the new Chief Statistician of Canada. Mr. Smith, a good public servant, attempted to show how the government's target response rate for the new National Household Survey, in fact, may be okay. What is the new target response rate? The government would be satisfied with a 50-per-cent response rate — 50 per cent — instead of the 94-per-cent response rate that we had for the mandatory long-form census.
You will remember the statement I quoted a few minutes ago from the Manitoba Chief Statistician. I will repeat it. He said: "If 50 per cent or lower" fill out the forms, "what have we got? There is a potential here for a statistical catastrophe." Yet that is the Harper government's target; a statistical catastrophe indeed.
I hope my friends from Manitoba on the other side are taking note. The Manitoba government is concerned that the survey will lead to misleading information about things like population growth, which of course is used to determine the size of federal transfer payments, to say nothing of the many other policy decisions that depend on the responses.
The Globe and Mail concluded the interview with Mr. Smith, the new Chief Statistician, with the simple question: "Would you prefer the old system to this one?" His response: "Obviously."
Honourable senators, we had the "gold standard" with the mandatory long-form census. That is what has worked to provide the serious evidence needed by public and private decision-makers throughout Canada, and it worked while respecting and protecting Canadians' privacy. I am troubled to think that the Conservatives are so intent on promoting their own ideological policies that they will not shrink from depriving Canadians, today and for years to come, of the critical information they need to make good decisions. With studies like the one from the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, evidently they will not shrink from undermining the credibility of an institution like Statistics Canada, an institution respected not only in Canada but throughout the world for its meticulous methodology.
The Canadian people understand what is going on, and they have said, loudly and clearly, that they understand the reason for a mandatory long-form census and are prepared and proud to do their civic duty to complete it.
Honourable senators, it is up to us today to say loudly and clearly, by voting in favour of this motion, that the government must reverse its regrettable decision on the census so the concerns of Canadians truly can be heard by those who govern.
Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.