The picture painted by Statistics Canada's 2011 census and the new national household survey -- a second-rate stand-in for the former mandatory long-form questionnaire axed by the Harper government -- is clear, to a degree. Almost 15 per cent of Canadians, for example, are living on after-tax low incomes -- less than $39,000 for a family of four. And, almost 70 per cent of households owned their home.
But sorting through what that means -- who are they, exactly where are they living -- gets tough the further one tries to drill down in a province, city, town or neighbourhood. Some neighbourhoods don't even show up.
That's because the voluntary survey, which was sent to a third of Canadian households last year, had some really low response rates and was unreliable in spots.
Income is just one of many characteristics of the population measured by the national statistics bureau every five years. The comparisons of repeated censuses have shown how the country has grown and changed, in religion, distribution of income, education, employment and ethnicity. The wealth of data drawn from the short form, which everyone must fill out on the same day of the year taken, and the long-form, sent to one-fifth of households in 2006, allowed Statistics Canada to draw broad conclusions about Canadians -- those of higher income were more likely to have post-secondary educations, for example. The rise of immigrant populations mirrored the relative fall of some previously "mainstream" religions in this country.
This came from solid data collected in big enough numbers to support observations. Standardized questionnaires -- asking the same question in the same way -- meant census results could be compared over time, indicating how populations were shifting and how the labour force or languages were changing as Canada's demographics were influenced by education, immigration, generational integration and migration from towns to cities.
The Harper government in 2010 eliminated the mandatory long-form questionnaire, citing concerns about privacy that were never well illustrated. The national household survey was sent to many more homes, but the response rate was 68 per cent, compared with 94 per cent for previous mandatory questionnaires. The results are telling. Or, rather, not. In 2006, the results from about 200 communities were suppressed due to unreliable data; this year, the numbers on more than 1,100 communities didn't show up. In Saskatchewan, no information appeared on 43 per cent, or 500, of its communities.
In Winnipeg, the recent release of socioeconomic data saw one low-income neighbourhood left out of the picture, while other similar areas have response rates so low the data's validity are questionable. In other parts of Canada, many neighbourhoods were black holes.
The results bear out the warnings of numerous groups about the effect of dropping the mandatory questionnaire: The details of the lives of those living in marginalized communities would be obscured, hurting the development of public policies and programs that aim to help children in school, improve the health of the impoverished and the chances of employment for those without basic job skills. Winnipeg's West Alexander area, around the HSC, and Point Douglas neighbourhood are clear illustrations of this gap in information.
Home ownership, for example, is an indication of a family's security. At a national level, it appears to be stable compared with 2006. But Statistics Canada cannot draw a picture on the trends provincially.
Census data do not simply allow governments to respond to need and businesses to plan for growth. They write the evolving story of the country for Canadians to understand each other and, in turn, themselves better. The Conservatives have muddied, severely, a chapter in one of the longest-running narratives Canada has had. It was a big mistake. The Harper government should begin now to reintroduce the mandatory long-form questionnaire so subsequent censuses can continue to piece together the story.