Less information to cost more: expert

Manitoba statistician pans census change


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OTTAWA -- Scrapping the mandatory long-form census in favour of a voluntary national household survey will cost more and produce unreliable results, Manitoba's chief statistician said Monday.

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This article was published 13/07/2010 (4527 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA — Scrapping the mandatory long-form census in favour of a voluntary national household survey will cost more and produce unreliable results, Manitoba’s chief statistician said Monday.

Wilf Falk is the latest to weigh in against the Harper government’s decision last month to eliminate the long form of the census in favour of a voluntary national household survey.

Every household in Canada will still get the short-form census, which asks eight questions about age, gender and marital status. Filling it out and returning it will be mandatory.

DAVID LIPNOWSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS archives Manitoba's chief statistician Wilf Falk says census data help governments plan programs.

However, instead of one in five homes getting a mandatory long-form census — which has 53 questions probing everything from income and employment to ethnicity and language — just one in three households will be mailed a household survey with similar questions, but filling it out will only be voluntary.

Falk said a voluntary survey will skew data based on which groups are more likely to fill it out. "What you’re getting in a voluntary survey is self-selection," he said. "Some communities will be underrepresented so you’ll end up with data that will be very suspect."

On Monday, Canada’s languages watchdog launched an investigation into the axing of the mandatory long census form, fearing the impact of the change on the country’s English and French minority communities.

Graham Fraser, commissioner of official languages, said he would examine whether the government respected its obligations under the Official Languages Act when it made the decision.

"This credible national source of data has been a critical tool for the government to assess the vitality of official language communities," Fraser said in a statement.

Falk said seniors may be more inclined to fill out the voluntary form because they have more time. A single parent may mean to fill it out but never get to it, he added. "The unfortunate thing is we’re not going to know if we’re going to have a good product until after it all comes back."

He said it will cost more because it will be distributed separately from the census to more homes and will require more marketing to make people aware of it.

He suggested it could cost as much as $30 million more — money that will be wasted if the results are unusable.

"If we’re going to be making faulty decisions based on faulty data, maybe we should not do it at all," Falk said.

Industry Minister Tony Clement, who has been taking a lot of heat over the census change, is unwavering.

He said he made the decision to address the privacy concerns of Canadians who objected to being forced to provide detailed personal data.

A spokeswoman from Clement’s office said Statistics Canada will apply the "same rigorous methods and standards used for all its surveys."

Lynn Meahan also said the cost of the short-form census and the new national household survey will be $660 million ($575 million for the census and $85 million for the national household survey), or $43.77 per dwelling. She said in 2006 the comparable cost for the census was $45.31 per dwelling.

The budget for the 2006 census was $567 million, which included $43 million for digital equipment to scan printed forms. The 2001 census cost $450 million. Governments, municipal councils and school boards use census information to make decisions about programming.


— with files from The Canadian Press


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