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Why Canada should reinstate the mandatory long-form census

a/Opinion by

The first week of February saw the defeat of a bill to reinstate Canada’s mandatory long-form census, prompting a sigh of discontent and discouragement from many Canadians. While every opposition Member of Parliament (MP) voted in favour, all but one Conservative MP voted against it, preventing the bill from passing 147 to 126. While this issue does not seem extremely alarming at first, it is imperative, not only for economic reasons, but also for the sake of academic research and historical accuracy that the long-form census is made mandatory again.

Since 1971, Statistics Canada has undertaken a mandatory long-form census every five years to produce meaningful data, which has been an integral factor affecting the country’s public and corporate decisions. This system, which garnered much praise from statisticians and economists for its ability to produce reliable and unbiased information, was replaced in 2010 by the Harper government with a voluntary National Household survey that is far less extensive and significantly more costly to implement. The decision was made primarily with the dubious goal of “protecting privacy,” which remains as virtually the sole reason the change is still being supported by the Conservatives to this day.

One does not need to be an expert in statistics to understand that the voluntary survey does an objectively poorer job of returning valuable information, with fewer questions and an average response rate of around 68 per cent compared to the mandatory census’ 93 per cent.

An example of an area suffering heavy difficulties due to this loss of information is public health units. Marginalized populations, such as families with low income, are less likely to complete the voluntary survey. Since they are not represented properly in the resulting data, health units have a hard time targeting their health care programs to the areas that need them the most. This is one of the many ways policy has been hindered by the change.

The low response rate and non-randomized nature of the voluntary census means that the data [people] are accessing will become increasingly innacurrate and biased.

However, the problem goes further, as the change also has large negative impacts on academia. For the past few decades, researchers have relied heavily on data provided by Statistics Canada, mainly through long-form censuses. Their fundamental position in academic research is reflected by the Research Data Centres Program, an initiative to provide research centres in universities around Canada with access to microdata from population and household surveys, which includes results gathered from the long-form census. Among other users, these centres are employed frequently by university students, mainly for post-graduate research. However, the low response rate and non-randomized nature of the voluntary census means that the data they are accessing will become increasingly inaccurate and biased. This essentially means that the next generation of post-graduate students will have access to lower quality information than the generation before them, making their research less effective, and therefore, less applicable to society.

The problem is even more serious when viewed from a long-term perspective. The data provided by the census is a way for historians to understand the growth and development of various periods in Canadian history. Not only does it present the necessary numbers for calculations, but it provides a context and voice to the numbers. For example, the long-form census can effectively trace not only the rate of immigration, but also provide vital information about how newcomers are being integrated into the nation through information about income, jobs, and education. Without this kind of information, it would be significantly more difficult for experts to have a coherent and complete understanding of different trends and changes that occurred in Canada.

Simply put, bringing back the mandatory long-form census is the only way to guarantee that Canada’s identity as a country is correctly portrayed, economic decisions are based in accurate data, and researchers have access to adequate and unbiased information.

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