Canada’s Chief Statistician Resigns Amid Census Row

Canada's Minister of Industry Tony Clement
Canada's Minister of Industry Tony Clement speaks during a meeting in Toronto. Photographer: Malcolm Taylor/Getty Images

Canada’s chief statistician, Munir Sheikh, resigned today over changes the government plans to make to the 2011 census, saying the decision to make the form voluntary instead of mandatory won’t yield acceptable data.

“I acknowledge with regret the resignation,” Industry Minister Tony Clement said in an e-mailed statement.

Clement, the minister responsible for Ottawa-based Statistics Canada, said Wayne Smith, the current assistant chief statistician, will replace Sheikh on an interim basis.

All three opposition parties criticized the planned census changes and the Liberals have said they would seek to amend the Statistics Act when Parliament reconvenes in September to make the questionnaire mandatory again. Clement today signaled the government won’t reconsider its position.

“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. “The government’s approach is about finding a better balance between collecting necessary data and protecting the privacy rights of Canadians.”

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

‘Tendered My Resignation’

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

The census, which will 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.

Lawmakers will hold hearings next week on the ruling Conservative Party’s decision, the opposition Liberal Party’s house leader, Ralph Goodale, said today.

“The government will have 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,” Goodale told reporters today.

Sheikh earlier canceled a town hall meeting with employees he had planned for this afternoon, saying he needed to reflect on the agency’s position, according to an e-mail sent to employees and posted on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.’s website.

Jedi Knights

“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.”

The long form included questions on ethnicity, employment, income, languages spoken at home, education and other topics.

“We made the 40-page long form voluntary because government should not threaten prosecution or jail time to force Canadians to divulge unnecessary private and personal information,” Dimitri Soudas, spokesman for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said in an e-mail on July 18.

Pointing to the 2001 census, Soudas said 21,000 Canadians registered “Jedi knight” as their religion, in reference to the characters in the Star Wars movies.

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