Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Census replacement costs more, gets less info

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OTTAWA -- Canadians got their first glimpse of the new National Household Survey last week.

As expected, the documents were stamped with a warning this new survey is less accurate than the old long-form census.

It sparked another round of hand-wringing and political posturing about the value of the survey and criticism of the decision by the Conservatives to scrap the mandatory long-form census.

The government was steadfast in its defence of the plan.

Although it cost as much as $29 million more to produce the survey than a long-form census, the government insisted it collects statistical data while "protecting Canadians' privacy."

"This is the principle," said Industry Minister Christian Paradis.

He went on to say the survey has data for 97 per cent of the Canadian population, that more Canadians responded to the survey than ever before and that at the national and provincial levels, the data is pretty reliable.

What Paradis left out is that in one-quarter of Canada's municipalities, not enough people responded to make the data any good at all.

One in three Manitoba municipalities will have no data published because the response rate was too low to make results statistically viable.

Wilf Falk, Manitoba's chief statistician, said while all nine cities in Manitoba have survey data published, the smaller you go, the less reliable the data gets.

So it's tougher to figure out population shifts and gaps in housing, education or health care.

He said older Canadians, new Canadians and poor Canadians are all going to be under represented in the data.

These are often demographics that government programs affect the most.

Manitoba municipal leaders fear the lack of data will affect federal and provincial funding. It shouldn't because most funding is handed out, according to population and population counts were determined using the mandatory short-form census.

Not everyone is worried about the survey.

Darrell Bricker, CEO at Ipsos Public Affairs Worldwide, said a lot of people are making a mountain out of a molehill on this one.

The long-form census wasn't perfect and marginalized groups were under represented in it as well.

But what is somewhat odd is that the Conservatives chose to eliminate the most reliable way of collecting statistics in favour of a more expensive, less-informative version, but the party itself has made collecting information on Canadians an art form.

The Liberals have Liberalist and the NDP have NDP Vote but they pale in comparison to the giant of political information databases that is the Conservatives' Constituent Information Management System (CIMS).

Every contact a Conservative MP or the party has with a voter produces information for the CIMS.

Sign a petition that you send to your MP? Answer questions on the doorstep? Send back a taxpayer-funded flyer? Call your MP to ask about something?

Your name will be there, along with tags that help determine who you're likely to vote for and what issues might turn your vote.

This information is used to target specific voters with information about specific policies or even to try to generate goodwill.

People in CIMS with Jewish-sounding names received cards for Rosh Hashanah one year. That prompted some voters to complain to the privacy commissioner. They objected to the idea they were included on a list identifying them as Jews.

CIMS is also at the heart of the Elections Canada investigation into robocalls in Guelph, Ont., as it is believed the database was used to track non-Conservative voters and target them for phone calls in which it was claimed the location of polling stations had changed.

Sure, you won't go to jail or be fined for refusing to be in CIMS, but you don't have a say in whether information about you is collected.

It seems incongruous that as political parties do everything they can to get as much information about Canadians as possible, the government has stepped up to cancel a statistical gathering tool nobody was worried about in the first place.

Rest assured, more people have complained to the government about taxpayer-funded flyers and probably even about UFOs than ever complained about the census.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 13, 2013 A4

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