Mandatory long-form census ruling is a statistically significant error: CJA
Yellow envelopes containing the 2011 Census have made their way into our homes, with a message from Wayne Smith, the new chief statistician of Canada, explaining that the information collected is vital for “planning services such as schools, daycare, police services and fire protection.”
In the past, the census consisted of a short questionaire and a longer version of 61 questions, providing a detailed portrait of Canada. This year, filling out the longer version, now renamed the National Household Survey, is optional.
This decision by the Harper government, on the ground that the long form is “intrusive,” was heavily debated and criticized last year. It has caused the previous chief statistician, Munir Sheikh, to resign and his predecessor Ivan Fellegi to state that he too would have resigned had this decision come into force during his tenure. In his resignation letter, Sheikh commented on whether a voluntary survey can become a legitimate substitute for a mandatory census without compromising the accuracy of information: “It can not,” he said.
Social service and cultural organizations rely on the long form to assess needs in their community says, Charles Shahar, research co-ordinator at Federation CJA. “It is the most important tool we have to implement services.”
Shahar stresses the importance of the long form to make one’s voice heard, since the short form provides information only about the number of people in a household and the language they speak.
“Whatever cultural community you belong to, it’s important to indicate it in the ethnicity or religion section. It is important that cultural communities be heard, because the government will take us seriously if we have a certain critical mass of people.” The figures reflected in the long form census justify social service agencies’ requests for government funding. “If we’re badly underestimated then we will be looked at differently than if the numbers are reflected accurately.”
It is estimated that an 80 per cent response rate is necessary for a survey to yield reliable information, Shahar explains. Ironically, it is the people who most need to be heard who are the less likely to fill out a voluntary questionnaire. A study done by the federal government last June found that visible minorities, the poor, people living in rural areas and those with lower levels of education were the most reluctant to fill out forms. “I’m concerned that seniors must rally in all cultural communities,” Shahar says. “It’s exactly the people we want to learn about, those we’re worried about, who need to fill out the form, including immigrants and groups that have less experience filling out forms.”
Without accurate information, Shahar says that community organizations are handicapped in their efforts to help people.
“Since resources are tough all around, especially for non profit organizations, we have to spend our money wisely. We need the long form to make informed decisions or we won’t know where vulnerable people live, their disabilities, their income.
“Without it, we’re blind.”