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Monday, July 19, 2010

Maxime Bernier: Scrapping the compulsory long-form census questionnaire

I intervened in the media over the weekend to defend my government’s decision to scrap the compulsory long-form questionnaire of the census. There has been a lot of opposition to this decision over the past two weeks coming from all kinds of interest groups who use the data from the census.

Fundamentally, my position is that whatever the presumed usefulness of these data, I don’t believe it justifies forcing people to answer intrusive questions about their lives, under threat from a fine or jail time if they don’t.

Most people don’t want to be called or be visited at home by a census bureaucrat pressuring them to answer the questions and threatening them with sanctions. They understandably do not want trouble with the government and when they get such threats, they simply comply. Few will officially complain to the government, although when I was Industry minister in 2006 during the previous census, several thousand email messages of complaint were sent to my MP office. (Some people have asked me to show proof of this. It was evidently part of an organized campaign, as my Parliament colleagues and I sometimes receive vast numbers of messages on controversial issues. They are one way among others to gauge the level of public support or opposition to a decision. These messages were obviously not filed for future use by my staff and were deleted.)

As I keep saying, government is already much too big and intrusive, and this decision will restore some balance. Private businesses and organizations who want such data should pay to get surveys done that answer their needs instead of relying on government coercion to get them.

For those who want to read more on this issue, here is an excellent column by Gordon Clark in the Vancouver Province, and this one by two economists from the Fraser Institute in the National Post. Also, the Western Standard has been publishing a series of commentaries supporting the decision, including one by one of my former advisors at Industry Canada, Martin Masse.

Those who have never seen the 40-page long-form questionnaire that is at the center of this debate can check the 2006 one here on the website of Statistics Canada. Among other intrusive questions, you are asked about your ethnic background, how many hours of unpaid housework, yard work or home maintenance you did the previous week, details about what kind of job you are doing, how you get to work, all your sources of income, who pays for what in your household, how many bedrooms there are in your home and if it needs minor or major repairs, etc.

Why in the world should peaceful and honest citizens be threatened with jail if they refuse to answer these questions?! Why do the Liberals support this?

Maxime Bernier is a Member of Parliament from Beauce, Quebec. This post is also available on his blog, here.

All WS on the census.

Posted by westernstandard on July 19, 2010 in Census | Permalink


    Why in the world should peaceful and honest citizens be threatened with jail if they refuse to answer these questions?! Why do the Liberals support this?

Because the Tories don't.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2010-07-19 12:54:31 PM

Mr. Bernier,
If there were "thousands" of complaints regarding the long form census when you were Industry Minister, why didn't you or anyone else bring this up in the House earlier? In fact, the ONLY mention of the census during 2006/2007 session was from you defending the Stats Canada contract with Lockheed Martin. Regarding privacy concerns, you are quoted ensuring Canadians that, "Statistics Canada has taken a number of important safeguards to protect the privacy and confidentiality of Census responses". If the long form census wasn't a privacy issue for your government then, why is it now?

Posted by: Morgan Boyco | 2010-07-19 3:37:12 PM

HarperCONs and their supporters had NO PROBLEM running the long form census in 2006.

Posted by: ronin | 2010-07-19 3:41:44 PM

HarperCONs have really stepped in it - AGAIN!

Bet there's a lot of conservatives out there thinking 'is this the sort of government we signed up for?'

All that effort, three party name changes, forced to amalgamate with the very PCs Reform was begun to provide an alterneative to, shedding every value of Reform along the way....

Just to wind up with this pathetic PM, a Canadian Nixon, the least liked Conservative PM in history...

Now this bad decision has got Clement and Bernier just making stuff up to defend it; being shown as obvious LIARS within hours of their dumb statements...

Businesses, city chambers of commerce, Provinces, religous groups and sovreigntists lined up AGAINST you - and only the wannabe teabaggers and foilhat brigade defending you...

What a great time to be Tory, eh?

Posted by: ronin | 2010-07-19 3:44:09 PM

Morgan, maybe you caught Mr. Bernier in a lie. Big deal, they all say whtever they have to. In this case since your privacy and mine are strengthened by eliminating the long form, I support it regardless what kind of man Bernier is.

Posted by: TM | 2010-07-19 3:53:29 PM

"Businesses, city chambers of commerce, Provinces, religous groups and sovreigntists lined up AGAINST you - and only the wannabe teabaggers and foilhat brigade defending you..."

What a great time to be Tory, eh?

Posted by: ronin | 2010-07-19 3:44:09 PM

Why do you want the long form anyway? The people who want to can try to convince people to fill it out. Otherwise leave me alone and don't threaten me with fine or jail just because you want private information that benefits your causes.

Posted by: TM | 2010-07-19 3:56:37 PM

There is nothing wrong with the content, nor the request to provide it. Are the legal authorities of Statistics Canada to compel the data from Canadians "stronger" than they should be (e.g., there might still be a fine, but a smaller one, and no threat of jail)? Perhaps. Nobody seems to be asking about the appropriate size of the stick StatsCan wields, though. The solution seems to be to abandon the stick altogether.

At the same time, as someone with several decades of experience conducting surveys, I will note that once the survey is of any appreciable length (and that may be only a few pages,or anything that just seems long at first glance), even the well-intentioned will allow it to fall to the bottom of the stack of things to do. If you've reached them electronically, it is a trivial matter to simply send a friendly reminder, and you see an immediate bump in response rate within 24hrs. If you can't remind them, you've generally lost them.

In this case, Statistics Canada cannot remind people. Unless they are willing to simply wait it out for a year, without imposing a deadline, or can afford to mail everyone a reminder, whether they filled it out or not, or wage a costly publicity campaign, 50% or more of the respondents will simply not complete the long form in time. Right away, that drops you from 1-in-5 to something a little under 1-in-6, and a 1-in-6 that does not provide the sort of stratified random sample that StatsCan needs to provide reliable estimates; the very estimates Mr. Bernier relies upon to request services and funding for his own riding.

The threat of fine or jail is there because StatsCan has historically had no other tools at its disposal to ensure methodologically sound data. Now that they have moved towards electronic surveying, perhaps other mechanisms will be available to more gently coax responses from the public (I'll be the first to admit StatsCan is not strong in the art of sweet-talking). Until they are developed, however, abandoning the obligatory long-form is folly, and the sort of risk that neither Mr. Bernier, nor Mssrs. Clement or Harper would expect other MPs to take in any other context.

Rather than knuckling under to those whose suspicion and contempt for the needs of good governance does not seem to correspond to logic, and abandoning a sound census methodology, Mr. Clement and Co. should have engaged in a vigorous public campaign to apologize for the need to compel completion, and promised to work on a different strategy for the next census. Giving in to yahoos whose strongest argument seems to be "You're not the boss of me!!" is no way to run a country.

Posted by: Mark Hammer | 2010-07-19 8:58:00 PM

Oh please spare us, Mark Hammer that the invasive long form is necessary for "good governance". Frankly, I'll take much less "governance". As for the lament that Bernier did not advocate this prior to now, who cares as long as action is taken now to eliminate the mandatory long form. Good riddance!

Posted by: Alain | 2010-07-19 9:12:59 PM

Alain, agreed.

Mark, you have missed the point entirely.

Posted by: TM | 2010-07-19 10:30:06 PM

While I have great respect for Mr. Bernier, he is Deliberately exaggerating when he talks of a "census bureaucrat pressuring them to answer the questions and threatening them with sanctions".

Have you seen these "census bureaucrats"? Most of them are sweet little ladies who are quite apologetic for asking these questions, and certainly don't threaten anybody. They do their best to make it as painless as possible.

The Clement crew are trying to make it sound as if there is a goon squad going around collecting data. Pay no attention to their spin, its all bafflegab.

Posted by: terry | 2010-07-19 10:50:11 PM

Among the principal "special interest groups" who make extensive use of long form census data are local municipal governments. They use this data to make planning decisions, assess the need for childcare, housing and transit, and to track changes in their communities.

Tonight, the town council of Milton, Ontario voted to ask the Federal government to reverse this decision. Milton is one of the fastest growing communities in Canada - we know this from the information in the 2006 census. Since then, our town has again doubled in size, so information from the 2011 census is going to be even more vital to us.

We NEED to know how many recent immigrants live here now and what languages they speak so we can bring in appropriate services. We NEED to know how many seniors we have and what sort of homes they live in, and whether they are comfortable or might need assistance. We NEED to know how many people work in town and how many commute, and where, so we can plan for roads and transit.

We need to know all these things so we can direct town services where they are needed. Without accurate data, we would be flying blind and end up wasting taxpayer dollars on misguided projects and misdirected expenditures.

Surely that is something true conservatives would want to avoid.

Posted by: Jennifer Smith | 2010-07-20 12:10:57 AM


You want less government, fine. Take your chequebook with you next time you go to the doctor or have your Visa ready when your house catches fire and, by the way, that street in front of your house is looking kinda shabby--better buy some ashphalt and fix it.

Planning and funding these kind of services depends on knowing who your citizens are...and how do we find that out....yes, the census.

Perhaps you should go south and join the Tea Party. They accomodate the unenlightened.

Posted by: Ron | 2010-07-20 6:20:56 AM

And this for Maxim:

Okay, just so I understand. There was a huge protest. But you didn't do anything about. Didn't mention it. Didn't ensure that it made it into the 2006 Census Review. Didn't even raise the issue in Parliament.

But, despite this, we should believe you and it would all be obvious to us if only you had all those letters still. In short, if only you had... the data. But you stopped collecting and saving it. Just like you want to do with... the census.

You may have deleted your parliamentary emails but I'm sure Stats Can and Industry Canada still have all their emails for 2006. Shall I ask them to search for anything they have that backs up what you say? Its really no trouble at all, would be happy to do it.

With all due respect Sir...we are all guilty of using shades of the truth when convenient and its difficult to reconcile this apparent groundswell of discent with your lack of action.

Posted by: Ron | 2010-07-20 6:40:31 AM

Jennifer, the government is the single most expensive an inefficient way to determine the needs you describe. Google the story "I Pencil." If you haven't read it already it describes the incredible complexity of making a simple pencil. Yet there is always a pencil just when and where you need it. Governments are simply not capable of this type of efficientcy.

Ron, I would support any politician who was scrapping the long form even if I hated them. It is the rigtht thing to do. If you are enlightened and open minded then there is some reading I could suggest that might persuade you that you are wrong on this one.

Posted by: TM | 2010-07-20 10:56:56 AM

Ron, just to be clear, I have not addressed the integrity of Bernier on this one. It is not because I support him. I like his stance on some issues but he is still a politician so I naturally don't trust him. It is simply not relevant.

Posted by: TM | 2010-07-20 10:59:29 AM

Ron, it is clear you are someone who is too young to recall when we did not have socialised health care, but I do. It did not drive me to the poor house. Furthermore doctors actually made house calls and people did not die while awaiting medical treatment. Oh, it was also a time prior to official bilingualism, gun registry, hate laws, HRCs and when teachers actually taught and universities were places of higher learning.

But then your sneering comments about the "Tea Party" are a dead giveaway.

Posted by: Alain | 2010-07-20 11:24:58 AM

The only three data points the Federal government really need are: Adult or minor; citizen or resident alien; Federal riding of residence.
To all the many and various organizations that believe they need data beyond those 3 questions I say, pay for it yourself. Stop demanding someone else pay for your beliefs. Companies, NGO's, every level of government from hamlet to Province, academic institutions, (the list goes on) all of them seem to think there's a free lunch.
At the bottom of it all, if government is expected to adhere to the principle of treating everyone equally, giving them more information than "Adult citizen resident in Saskatoon-Wanuskewin" is a dangerous temptation to bureaucrats to 'help', using other peoples money.

Posted by: Dana | 2010-07-20 6:08:04 PM

I really have a hard time understanding why people are so piqued by the act of wanting to know more about the country so that services and programs can be anticipated and provided. Now, if you want to make a case for programs being ineptly carried out, or bungled, you'll have no quarrel with me. Good information is a necessary precondition, but certainly not sufficient for smoothly running cost-effective programs, and any government is capable of taken great information and doing something stupid with it. But how the hell do we know what services are needed unless we ask? And how will we know whether the data we gather provides a valid answer to the questions and good guidance unless we gather it properly? If you were starting up a business, or financing someone else's business, wouldn't you insist on hard market research data? Would it be a royal pain to gather that hard data? You bet it would. And maybe even expensive too, but you'd know you were making a sound decision with it.

Alain, you reflect wistfully on "the old days" before this and that. Well, times change, and often for reasons that are out of our control. The only way to adapt to changing times is to find out what the hell is happening.

Consider. We know that Canadians aren't (or rather, weren't) having enough babies to provide the workers to fill all the positions that need filling, so we now we're going to have to rely on immigration to do that heavy lifting. Okay, those folks come from far and wide (just like the song says), and they don't all speak English or French, and maybe they bring kids with them who don't speak it either. So what kind of services do we need to provide so that those immigrants and their kids can merge efficiently with the rest of Canada and fulfill the labour role we expect of them? Or is the suggestion that we simply point to the deep end of the pool, and expect everything to work out perfectly on that basis?

If people want to bitch about this party or that, fine. Let them. I simply don't understand why people feel that the nation forfeits more by having a properly done census than it gains by doing so. The data that emerge can be used by any party to help shape whatever programs they want or feel are necessary. (Mind you, if you don't trust ANY party to do that, just what the hell are you doing supporting Tony Clement's decision, or Maxime Bernier's claims?)

At a certain point, you know, you can't keep telling the doctor, the mechanic, the plumber, the lawyer, the pharmacist, the accountant, the green grocer, the electrician, the nurse, the welder, the airline pilot, or the teacher that they don't know what the hell they are doing. Whatever your gripe is, there ARE actual experts out there. When all those folks whose day-in/day-out business is providing numbers we all depend on for one thing or another stand up and say it needs to be done THIS way, or else it's useless, you're just gonna have to trust them. StatsCan are the folks whose calculations get YOU your cost of living increase, and determine all manner of indices that the markets rise and fall on. If you think they don't know what they're doing then go get yourself a decent calculator and figure it out on your own.

Posted by: Mark Hammer | 2010-07-20 9:08:56 PM

Mark, you are free to provide the government with all your personal information you like from your sexual habits to your toilet use. It only becomes an issue when you and your fellow travellers want to impose it on the rest of us by force of law.

I have been asking everyone I run into what they think about dropping the mandatory long form and so far not a single person supports keeping it. When I say everyone I am including teachers, university professors, health care workers and farmers. I doubt that the Fraser Valley of British Columbia has a unique take on the issue. The bottom line remains that there are just no takers for what you are peddling.

Posted by: Alain | 2010-07-20 9:28:17 PM

Mark, you believe there are benefits if the government collects this information. Whether you are right or not, is not the point. The point is the line that is crossed when they do so. I defend your right to not provide it. However, if you feel so trusting then I also defend your right to provide it. I just ask that you do the same for me.

Posted by: TM | 2010-07-20 11:01:39 PM

In response to MP Bernier's comment, for as long as the mandatory form has been distributed, how many prosecutions and convictions have there been for failure to return?

Posted by: Peter Glenister | 2010-07-21 1:29:04 PM

In response to MP Bernier's comment, for as long as the mandatory form has been distributed, how many prosecutions and convictions have there been for failure to return?

Posted by: Peter Glenister | 2010-07-21 1:29:04 PM

Peter, that it irrelevant. What is wrong is wrong no matter what you think of him or the conservatives.

Posted by: TM | 2010-07-21 2:36:05 PM

If this was such a huge issue for your constituents, why wouldn't you keep all these supposed thousands of emails for the record? Mr. Bernier, your intelligence does not seem to have improved since you left that confidential file lying on Julie's coffee table.....perhaps she knows where these emails are?

Posted by: Jim | 2010-07-22 10:34:18 AM

"If this was such a huge issue for your constituents, why wouldn't you keep all these supposed thousands of emails for the record? Mr. Bernier, your intelligence does not seem to have improved since you left that confidential file lying on Julie's coffee table.....perhaps she knows where these emails are?"

Posted by: Jim | 2010-07-22 10:34:18 AM

Jim, those who support eliminating the long form don't give a rat's behind if Bernier was lying. You might feel better proving he is lying but this about the form and how wrong it is.

Posted by: TM | 2010-07-22 1:10:55 PM

The ONLY folks supporting this government's decision are the "Too Lazy to Mark an X" crowd.

The Census Long Form is an instrumental tool used by researchers and decision makers nationwide.
Good decision-making requires solid and reliable underlying data.

Congratulations to Munir Sheikh for resigning as Stats Canada boss. Hopefully the ideologically-driven lunatics in Ottawa will get the message.

Posted by: Mark S | 2010-07-22 9:40:46 PM

Congratulations to Munir Sheikh for resigning as Stats Canada boss.

Posted by: Mark S | 2010-07-22 9:40:46 PM

I agree with this. As for the rest, wrong is wrong Mark. Think of some thing you find morally wrong. Then decide which of them you would be willing to give in on for the sake of government efficiency. Maybe you would be willing to take less than market value for your property if the state expropriated it for someting you disagreed with.

Why should I care if they claim more efficiency in their central planning? Maybe it is more efficient, maybe it isn't. I don't trust that it is but maybe it is. I still don't care. They don't care about my efficiency when the shoe is on the other foot. If you have ever been right in a dispute with any level of government you will understand what I mean.

Go ahead and give your information but don't make them come to my door to question me. We are all better off in the long run to tell them to eff off.

Posted by: TM | 2010-07-22 10:56:22 PM

The government has got it right this time.

The long form census was very invasive, with many highly personal questions. About the only question missing was bra size.

Canadians have a right to resist such intrusiveness into their privacy. Thousands of ordinary Canadians registered their opposition to the long form census in 2006.

All other polls, such as Ipsos-Reid, are done on a voluntary basis, and their results are accpeted as statistically satisfactory.

Posted by: D. Rogers | 2010-07-23 9:49:11 PM

"So what kind of services do we need to provide so that those immigrants and their kids can merge efficiently with the rest of Canada and fulfill the labour role we expect of them?"

Ever tried living abroad?
If you don't work your ass off trying to learn their language, systems and culture; nobody will serves it to you on a platter.
Why should it be different here?
I think not providing all kinds of costly services to immigrants is the best incentive to have them rapidly "merge with the rest of Canada", as long as they can easily access the same benefits we can.

Posted by: Marc | 2010-07-24 12:07:15 AM

You know, I can remember a time when people actually resented having endless bureaucracy thrown at them, especially if accompanied by threats to their financial well-being or personal freedom if they didn’t comply with it. Actually, now, when I think about it, there weren’t as many threats because government wasn’t allowed to control the people like the way it does now. My belief is that each succeeding generation is becoming just a little more beaten-down and complacent, willing to accept just about anything that authority figures say is in their best interest, not willing to appear different or (God forbid!) controversial, even troublesome, in a world gone crazy with political-correctness.

Despite knowing this, I am still amazed at the level of opposition this intelligent about-face to a horrendous violation of human rights and freedoms has generated! This country’s founders vehemently opposed any form of government predomination, and censuses originally were never employed except as a means of counting heads. In my opinion, any true democracy would do away with a mandatory census, however, suffice to say that any ‘request’ for information accompanied by the threat of fines and/or imprisonment speaks of something other than a democracy.

Apparently, we as a society have become used to the idea of being managed like livestock, actually finding security in increased government interference in most aspects of our lives, something akin to living in a cattle pen with heavy posts and rails separating us, the herd, from any real or imagined dangers beyond it’s confines.

I’m all for voluntary submission of “data” for those content or anxious to publish their personal lives, perhaps fulfilling some voyeuristic need they might have… but, you can leave me out of it, thanks.

Posted by: Highwayman | 2010-07-24 12:24:48 AM

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