By Jennifer Ditchburn, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA – The new Liberal government is making good on a promise to resurrect the mandatory, long-form census killed off by the Conservatives, but is vague on the details of how it plans to persuade Canadians to fill it out.
The long-form component of the 2011 questionnaire was axed by Stephen Harper’s government, which called it intrusive to threaten people with fines and jail time for not answering personal questions â€” a nod to the party’s libertarian base.
The Conservatives replaced the long-form census with the National Household Survey. The response rate declined from 93.5 per cent in 2006 to 68.6 per cent in 2011.
The new Liberal government, however, is giving priority to evidence-based decision-making instead of ideology, said Navdeep Bains, the minister of innovation, science and economic development.
“Today, Canadians are reclaiming their right to accurate and more reliable information,” Bains told a news conference.
“Communities will once again have access to high-quality data they require to make decisions that will truly reflect the needs of the people, businesses, institutions and organizations.”
But neither Bains nor Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos would discuss specific consequences or penalties which might be imposed to ensure the mandatory questionnaire is filled out.
Some groups have been shown to be less likely to fill out the forms, including indigenous Canadians and low-income earners.
“The law is the law” and the law has not changed, said Bains. He said the government plans to roll out a “robust communications plan” to ensure people know it’s no longer an option to choose not to fill out the form.
The Statistics Act refers to a census of population and to a $500 fine or three-month jail term (or both) if a person refuses to fill in forms they are required to complete. In 2014, Toronto resident Janet Churnin was given a conditional discharge and 50 hours of community service for refusing to fill out the 2011 short form.
The decision to do away with the mandatory long-form census met a wave of criticism in 2010, from a wide range of voices. Religious groups, municipal planners, economists, the Federation of Francophone and Acadian Communities and aboriginal organizations were among those who petitioned for its return.
“Municipal governments â€” big and small, urban and rural â€” rely on the Canadian census and Statistics Canada data to effectively respond to and monitor the changing needs of our cities and communities,” said Raymond Louie, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.
“The loss of the long-form census resulted in the loss of vital data about some of our most vulnerable populations and left significant gaps in access to data for Canada’s rural and remote communities.”
Former chief statistician Munir Sheikh resigned over the census debacle, after then-industry minister Tony Clement publicly suggested that bureaucrats supported the idea of a voluntary survey as an adequate replacement for the mandatory questionnaire.
On Thursday, Clement said that in hindsight, a more thorough examination of how to reform the census process might have been prudent. Other countries are looking at data collection on a broader scale â€” the United Kingdom is currently undertaking a massive analysis of how to do things differently.
“Looking back on it, I would say that it would have been better to have a much broader review of data collection in our country and come up with a better system,” Clement said.
Such a system, he continued, would look at “how data capture can happen in a seamless way and in a way that protects the privacy and security of people.”