Harper May Reconsider Canada Census Changes After Chief Statistician Quits

The resignation of Canada’s chief statistician amid a dispute over changes to the 2011 census may lead Prime Minister Stephen Harper to reconsider the plan or risk undermining the agency’s reputation, economists and historians said.

Munir Sheikh, the head of Statistics Canada and a career bureaucrat who helped eliminate Canada’s deficits during the 1990s, said last night he was resigning and added that a voluntary survey, as the government plans, can’t be a substitute for the mandatory portion of the country’s census.

The government’s proposal “violates all known laws of statistics,” said Kevin Milligan, an associate professor of economics at the University of British Columbia. “There is the potential here for the minister to damage the hard-earned global reputation of Statistics Canada” if they replace Sheikh with someone who moves ahead with a voluntary survey, he said.

Canada’s three opposition parties are against the decision to make voluntary a detailed questionnaire portion of the census, and have enough votes to topple the Conservative administration, or change laws if they join forces. Parliament’s Industry Committee will hold hearings next week to hear from groups including economists and academics who say keeping the current procedure is needed to get accurate results.

The government has said Canada’s next census, to be taken in May 2011, won’t include a mandatory long-form questionnaire such as the one that had previously been sent to a fifth of households. Instead, Statistics Canada will send a voluntary form covering most of the same topics as the previous form as part of a new National Household Survey.

Reason for Leaving

In a statement posted on Statistics Canada’s website, Sheikh said the reason for his departure was over a dispute about “whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census.”

“It cannot,” Sheikh said. “Under the circumstances, I have tendered my resignation to the prime minister.”

The resignation is a “shock,” because “that just doesn’t happen very often in Canada,” said Norman Hillmer, a history professor at Carleton University. “If I were advising the prime minister I would tell him to take a good, hard look at this.”

“The government is probably in a position it never wanted to be in,” said Nik Nanos of the Nanos Research polling company. “This will likely have an impact on the reputation of the government.”

Could Seek Review

Harper could seek a review of the decision to defuse the tension, Nanos said. “It’s possible for the prime minister to intervene and it’s much easier now that the head of StatsCan has stepped down.”

“I acknowledge with regret the resignation,” Industry Minister Tony Clement, the minister responsible for Ottawa-based Statistics Canada, said in an e-mailed statement, adding assistant chief statistician Wayne Smith will replace Sheikh on an interim basis.

“It is not appropriate to compel citizens to divulge how many bedrooms they have in their houses, or what time they leave for work in the morning,” Clement said in the statement. “The government’s approach is about finding a better balance between collecting necessary data and protecting the privacy rights of Canadians.”

The long form part of the 2006 census included questions on ethnicity, employment, income, languages spoken at home, education and other topics.

Rationale

The opposition Liberal Party has said they would seek to amend the Statistics Act when Parliament reconvenes in September to make the questionnaire mandatory again. The Liberal Party’s house leader, Ralph Goodale, said yesterday that next week’s Industry Committee hearings would give the government “an opportunity to present its rationale, whatever it may be, and other Canadians who believe that this is important will have their opportunity to demonstrate what the stakes are on their side.”

“When you don’t have a commitment for honest research and the integrity of data, anything is possible,” Charlie Angus, a lawmaker with the New Democratic Party, said in an interview. “We really need hearings on this, because we’re not dealing with a mature government.”

Angus said it was “impossible” for Sheikh to stay at the helm of the agency after the government began “trashing” its reputation by implying it was spying on citizens.

First Census

“We supported the previous system because it provided Canadian businesses with accurate statistical data to use in their planning,” Kathryn Anderson, director of communications with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said in an e-mail. “If the government proceeds to make completion of the long form voluntary, we will want to see what measures it will implement to ensure that the data generated by the census are comprehensive and reliable.”

Canada’s first census was in 1666 in what was then the colony of New France, when Jean Talon counted 3,215 residents mostly by going door to door himself. Talon asked about their age, sex, marital status and occupation. He helped arrange to have women sent over from France after finding men outnumbered women by nearly two to one. Statistics Canada today has a building at its headquarters named after Talon.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alexandre Deslongchamps in Ottawa at adeslongcham@bloomberg.net.

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