Opinion

Flawed Census Isn't Much Of A Census At All

Politically-motivated tinkering has blocked the collection of reliable, valid data that is so important in properly delivering social programs in Canada.

By Michael Borrelli
Published May 06, 2011

This past week, households across the country began to receive their 2011 Census packages. Enclosed in this mass of paper was an upbeat reminder from the Statistics Canada that, "Communities depend on census information when planning for new schools, roads, waterworks, public transit, and police and fire services. Town planners use census information on households and families to plan current and future housing needs, health care, and day-care centres."

With such pro-social intentions, how could anyone argue against completing the Census, as some Canadians are now suggesting? It would seem uncivil to deny the government this valuable information, and it could also get you thrown in jail.

Since the objective of a census is to systematically enumerate and collect information on a whole population, not a sub-sample of it, participation is mandatory and methodologically necessary. This has been the primary method of conducting censuses for thousands of years: Jesus was born in Bethlehem while his parents were in town to be counted by the Romans; and there are records of censuses going back three or four thousand years before Christ in Egypt and China.

But starting this year, only a small part of the Canadian census is mandatory. Form 2A, the eight questions commonly referred to as the 'short-form', is sent to every household in Canada. In previous years the 'long-form', which includes 53 additional questions about ethnicity, education, and other important demographic indicators, was sent to 20% of households.

Like Form 2A, completion of the long-form census was mandatory, but last year the Conservative government informed Statistics Canada that it would be replaced by a voluntary National Household Survey sent to 30% of households instead. The government insisted that the decision was made in response to "public opposition," though this was greatly overstated.

In the face of critics who argued a voluntary form would result in unreliable data, and despite the fact that the US Census Bureau concluded in 2003 that a voluntary census was not a workable option there, Industry Minister Tony Clement twisted himself into knots to justify the decision. The head of Statistics Canada at the time, Munir Sheikh, even resigned in opposition to the plan.

Why Bother Completing The Census At All?

So what is the point of filling out either Form 2A or the NHS now that the integrity of the data is compromised?

The 2011 iteration of the Canadian Census addresses neither the privacy issues cited by the government, or the broader data validity questions raised by a wide spectrum of economic and social interests.

On privacy, the accurate enumeration of individuals, their ages and their primary language spoken is important for planning where to build new schools, but there's precious little reason for Statistics Canada to know the nature of my relationship with my domestic partner or others in the household.

Confidentiality and security assurances from Statistics Canada aside, what's even scarier from a privacy standpoint is that data processing will be carried out by Lockheed Martin. This US defense contractor works intimately with the CIA, NSA and the Pentagon, and their motto is: "We never forget who we're working for."

But of greater concern than privacy is the loss of valuable socio-cultural information provided by a mandatory long-form. Questions on immigration, Aboriginal identity, religion, education and employment are now optional, and for the delivery of targeted programs for those most in need, it is this detailed demographic information that is most essential.

Because the choice to make the NHS optional has introduced a significant amount of error into the statistical process, there will be less certainty that the data collected from the survey will be accurately generalized to the remaining population. Why?  Because Statistics Canada will be unable to determine if certain sub-demographics are systematically declining to fill out the NHS, and will therefore end up unrepresented in the final weighting of the data.

You might think this is statistical pedantry, but I see it much like the Federation of Francophone and Acadian Communities of Canada did when they sued the federal government. They argued that without reliable data about the francophone presence in Canada, the quality of government services in French could suffer.

Because it is increasingly clear that the 2011 Census is broken, some Canadians are vowing to complicate the collection of data. As I mentioned, it's illegal to refuse to answer Form 2A, but the Count Me Out campaign is instead encouraging Canadians to adopt a strategy of minimum cooperation. They've even provided a chuckle-worthy list of alternative methods of compliance that includes ignoring the post-paid envelope Statistics Canada provides and instead mailing your completed 2A to Tony Clement's cabinet office, postage-free!

As for me, I'll comply with the Statistics Act and fill out my short-form eventually, but not before I demonstrate my opposition to the politically-motivated tinkering that has blocked the collection of reliable, valid data that is so important in properly delivering social programs.

In my view, a census that ignores basic methodological standards isn't much of a census at all, and what you do with the form is up to you.

Michael Borrelli is a social researcher living with his family in Hamilton's North End. He tweets @BaysideBadger.

17 Comments

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By mrgrande (registered) | Posted May 06, 2011 at 08:43:40

My household was selected for the NHS. I had a hard time deciding whether or not to do it because it's not statistically sound, dammit! I'm a computer guy, I love stats!

I ended up filling it out...

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By adrian (registered) | Posted May 06, 2011 at 09:16:21

It's interesting that one of the questions removed from the long-form census was about performance of unpaid work, i.e. childcare, care of the elderly, etc. The reasoning is obvious: the majority of unpaid work is performed by women, and that's a direct commentary on equity within Canadian society.

If we don't have any idea how much unpaid work is being performed any more, then women don't have data with which to make their case for greater economic fairness.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted May 06, 2011 at 09:33:48

Good point, Adrian--I believe that this willful ignorance is partially the point of the Census redevelopment by the Tories. If you have less quality data to work with, you can avoid answering important social questions like those to do with the gendered division of labour. It's all part of a concerted campaign to mystify statistics, and delegitimize their use in social policy.

It's happening with jails right now, where the Conservatives are making crime policy while willfully ignoring data that points to decreases in crime. They further confuse the issue by bringing up the specter of "unreported crime" which is in itself, laughable. It has allowed them to redirect the way social policy is developed by convincing people that opinions and beliefs are stronger indicators of "the way things are" then methodically collected empirical data.

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By Craig (anonymous) | Posted May 06, 2011 at 09:34:03

Some fellow mandatory census supporters and I came up with a simple method of protest: join the religion called "Mandatory Long Form Supporter". The facebook page for this new and fantastic relgion is here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Mandatory-Long-Form-Supporter/197873500256395

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted May 06, 2011 at 10:39:56

There's something fascinating about a mystery-demographic that doesn't fill out their census, lies on surveys and doesn't use Facebook. Unfortunately, I'll never be able to prove they exist.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted May 06, 2011 at 14:44:27 in reply to Comment 63149

Your comment made me laught and brightened my day. Kudos!

:-)

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By Clyde_Cope (registered) | Posted May 06, 2011 at 11:29:51

We were dumfounded when we did our census form- what the heck do they think that age, sex, relationships will do as the criteria for planning Canada's future? They sure gutted the important questions.

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By Wordman Z (anonymous) | Posted May 06, 2011 at 12:02:24

What I'm doing in protest is taking the census and sending it back, but not before drawing a picture of a cat on a mat on it. Everyone knows that cats and mats have high R squared values.

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By jason (registered) | Posted May 06, 2011 at 15:09:24

why are we using Lockheed Martin to analyze the data?? I'm still confused as to why we needed to change the census forms at all. This is valuable information that many people rely on. I got mine and will do it.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted May 06, 2011 at 15:16:54 in reply to Comment 63169

Because Lockheed Martin is a technology leader in missile targeting AND optical character recognition...

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By Clyde_Cope (registered) | Posted May 06, 2011 at 17:36:10 in reply to Comment 63171

So I guess that means they'll take a look at my messy writing and send a missile after me - yikes, better duck!

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By rednic (registered) | Posted May 07, 2011 at 16:46:29

Regardless of there current and past affiliations it is important to understand that Lockheed Martin is legally bound under the home land security act to give the american government ANY data that is requested ... I'm very loath to agree with any the conservatives do but it is conceivable that given the situation making the long form not mandatory was a real protection of privacy ...

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By Wordman Z (anonymous) | Posted May 07, 2011 at 20:59:06

Conspiracy theory! Aliens! Where is Fox Mulder?

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By Freedom Seeker (anonymous) | Posted May 10, 2011 at 18:31:58

So tell me this: Why is it a crime not to complete the census? In other words why does this social institution (Government) have a gun in it's hand when it comes to ask me some questions?

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted May 12, 2011 at 13:20:30

I started doing mine the other day online and got pulled away to do something else and my session timed out. I didn't get a chance to go back to it, but then I get a call from the Government today asking me about a questionnaire. I didn't clue in at first and had to call them back because my littlest one was being sick.

So we get asking and answering questions when they get to the farm one and I am like "this sounds a lot like the Census". "Yes it is."

I just said I would get back to it when I had the chance and politely said goodbye.

Perhaps she said when she first introduced herself that she wanted to "help me finish my quesionnaire" meanind Census? If that were the case, they can monitor who times out and call them back? Maybe I'll just do the paper copy.

Comment edited by lawrence on 2011-05-12 13:20:52

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted May 16, 2011 at 16:40:18

I'm frankly appalled at the meanspiritedness and stupidity of this thread. Thanks, all of you, for making the Tory government's point for them. What a bunch of ignorant children.

Freedom Seeker: they don't have a "gun in their hand", that's silly. The census is important because is a crucial tool of government, in order to sensibly, rationally and fairly provide government services.

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By Mememe (anonymous) | Posted June 04, 2011 at 09:25:53

I don't get why they want my full name, my date of birth, my partners name, the type of relationship we have ...
What's wrong with just my age, sex, and marital status ?
They are asking personal information and that is not cool,.
They passed by my house twice already and prolly called but my phone us not plugged in so they really want the information.
Harper is giving the Americans our country on a platter.

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