The Census

This is what’s got Canadians all fired up today?

Like some kind of virulent high-tech rabies, a little Minnesota Madness may have seeped through our porous border, because otherwise the Census is about the last thing I would have guessed would end up on the table of hot-button political topics in Canada.   But it is the Stupid Season, so why not?

Whether you think it’s an invasion of privacy or an excellent source of data that gives government a better idea of how to spend our tax dollars (for the record, I think it’s a little of both), as an information source the Census has always had one thing going for it:  non-partisanship.

During the last door-to-door Census in 1997, I had a job supervising about 20 door-knockers, and the importance of leaving politics at home was emphatically impressed on us during the hiring process.  The Census must be untainted by politics or ideology of any kind, because anything less would naturally compromise the process and the data.  (I had to fire someone for proselytizing on the job, something I immensely enjoyed, and being informed of my eventual horrible fiery fate for doing so only added to that enjoyment.)  Like Elections Canada, the Census is one of those government undertakings whose credibility depends on it being stubbornly apolitical.

But not anymore.  The debate set off by the Harper government’s plan to ditch the long-form Census has lined up two distinct sides, for and against, that happen to coincide fairly precisely with political ideologies.  Liberals are generally for the long-form Census and Conservatives are generally against it.   No matter where you stand, that’s the worst thing about this brainless little Census skirmish — the Census has been politicized, and whatever ends up happening, the data might be viewed a little askance in the future.

Then again, there’s always the possibility that the proposal was just meant to milk a little temporary outrage so the government could reap the benefits of walking it back later.  They do have a history.

18 Responses to “The Census”


  1. 1 Brian Tuesday, July 20, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    I don’t know if I agree that the census has been politicized. It appears that what has been politicized (if even that) is the depth to which the questions may delve. That would appear to kind of be one layer back from politicizing the census itself.

    It shouldn’t be too surprising that conservatives want less depth of information gathered, and liberals want more.

    Sort of by definition liberals are more inclined to approve of the government solving various issues, and that service requires knowing what’s going on in the realm where the solution is to be provided. Hence liberals would be more inclined to desire more in-depth knowledge of the populace to be in the hands of the government.

    That still, though, doesn’t seem so much like politicizing the census as having differing views of what it ought to ask, views conforming to one’s idea of the proper role for government to play.

  2. 2 deBeauxOs Tuesday, July 20, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    As well as ensuring there are no pesky facts or data available to demonstrate that politicians – whether they believe in big, medium or small government – aren’t doing their jobs.

    Accountability is such an annoyance for politicians. At least the progressive secular political parties have the merit of not trying to discredit scientific research.

  3. 3 JJ Tuesday, July 20, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    Hi Brian – I’m not surprised by how the divisions have broken out, it makes perfect sense. It’s just that for all these years, the Census has been a non-issue: it’s been undertaken by both liberal and conservative governments, and it was never a problem for anyone but a few Black Helicopter types. Nobody else cared about it and it definitely wasn’t a partisan issue.

    Now the government has changed all that and got people fighting about it along partisan lines. This might compromise the way people view StatsCan data in the future.

  4. 4 JJ Tuesday, July 20, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    deBeauxOs

    As well as ensuring there are no pesky facts or data available to demonstrate that politicians – whether they believe in big, medium or small government – aren’t doing their jobs.

    Exactly. The beauty of the Census is that it isolates disparities in standard of living etc., and clarifies who needs help and who doesn’t. I am not a fan of Big Government, but as long as it’s there, it might as well be put to work effectively and efficiently, and the Census can help make that happen.

  5. 5 Bleatmop Tuesday, July 20, 2010 at 8:49 pm

    I’ve always found it weird that I’ve never been counted by the census. At least to my knowledge. How often do they do these things here in Canada?

  6. 6 JJ Tuesday, July 20, 2010 at 9:20 pm

    Bleatmop – I’ve only gotten counted twice, and I’ve lived a lot longer than you. Just wait, you will get your turn 😛

    They do it every 5 years or so, and only 1 out of every 5 households actually gets counted.

  7. 7 Torontonian Tuesday, July 20, 2010 at 11:55 pm

    @Bleatmop

    Are you saying you have never been counted in any census
    or are you saying you’ve never been canvassed with the
    long form census questionnaire.

    I find it curious you have not been “counted”–to use
    your word. The census is a systematic door-to-door
    canvass of every address in Canada.

    Even if you were away in something like a logging camp
    or offshore oil platform, you’d be enumerated. The
    homeless are also counted as well as those in shelters
    and persons staying in hotel rooms. I remember doing
    the Motherhouse for the Sisters of Providence.

    How you could not be counted escapes me, unless . . . .
    your living situation had others who offered your information
    while you were absent. This happens in student rented
    houses.

    Last time round, I did my census form online. I wonder if
    it’ll be possible to do it again this way next year.

  8. 8 Calgal Wednesday, July 21, 2010 at 10:23 am

    There’s no point in doing a census if the data you collect isn’t going to be good data. Either the voluntary method is sufficient or it isn’t and if the expert statisticians say it isn’t, then you either make the long form mandatory to make it so or don’t do it all. To collect skewed data is a waste of time and taxpayer’s money.

  9. 9 JJ Wednesday, July 21, 2010 at 10:51 am

    Torontonian – As far as I know, the door to door enumeration is a dead issue — at least that’s what I was told when I worked for them back in 97 or 96, whenever it was. Maybe they changed their mind about it and started the door to door enumeration again? (If so, they missed me.)

    I know the object of the door to door enumeration was to hit everyone possible, but I am getting a little confused — hasn’t the census more recently only been sent to 1 out of 5 households? Or am I thinking of something else?

    Gah! They should just go back to the door to door census and be done with it.

  10. 10 JJ Wednesday, July 21, 2010 at 10:55 am

    Calgal

    To collect skewed data is a waste of time and taxpayer’s money.

    I agree. Do it right or don’t do it at all.

    They could probably revamp it a little to take out some of the questions that seem weird (How many bedrooms in your house, etc), but basically it’s a useful undertaking that I don’t mind because in the long run it means more efficient expenditure of tax dollars, and communities that might otherwise fall between the cracks get the scrutiny they need.

  11. 11 Torontonian Wednesday, July 21, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    @JJ

    The intent of the census is to systematically canvas every address in the nation. Every fifth household has been
    the residence which gets the detailed questionnaire.
    All the other households get the short questionnaire
    which is usually completed in less than 5 minutes.

    In the last census, I received my questionnaire (short-form)
    from a worker at the door of my residence. I studied it
    and completed the on-line form instead.

    —–
    @Calgal

    I get the feeling you think that a one in five sampling
    (in the detailed questionnaire) is a skewed sample.
    One in five is more than abundant information for a
    census tract. A census tract may have 250 – 300 homes
    and 20% of them replying with the detailed form will
    supply plenty of demographic/economic information for
    study and planning purposes. A census tract is limited
    to a small area and the economic and other factors are
    pretty uniformly distributed through the tract.

    Statistics Canada has always been greatly admired around
    the world for the quality of their data gathering and
    processing.

  12. 12 JJ Wednesday, July 21, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    Torontonian – Gotcha. Thanks.

    So they brought back the door to door census, how about that. When I worked for them I was told it would be the last one ever.

  13. 13 Bleatmop Wednesday, July 21, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    Torontonian – To my knowledge, I have never been counted, in my adult life at least. When I was a child I have no idea what my parents did. I have never laid eyes on a short 5 minute form nor a long form. This is also the first time I’ve ever heard that there is a online thing you can apparently do.

    I’m not sure what a student rented house is. I rented an apartment when I was in university but it was in no way affiliated with my school. I have spent time in camps when I was helping to explore the oilsands in Fort McMurry, but that was not my permanent residence. I worked there 2 weeks in, one week out. I still lived with my mother at that time (and if memory serves they were doing a census then) but she denies having fill out any census form. So I dunno. Maybe there were information ninjas that got my information or something. :p

    Also, is enumerated the correct word to replace counted?

  14. 14 Calgal Wednesday, July 21, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    Torontonian,
    I am not saying that 1 in 5 is insufficient. I’m saying that if it is indeed true that voluntary as opposed to mandatory reporting will skew the result, then we shouldn’t waste our time with a voluntary long form at all.

    As for the questions, in my experience the data elements are carefully chosen for an express purpose. If there is no worthy purpose in asking it, then it gets tossed. I have no idea why we are asked how many bedrooms are in our houses, but the average size of a home as well as the current trend in average size, would certainly have implications for energy consumption, the lumber industry etc. Perhaps it would be useful for Statscan to explain some of the weirder questions we are asked.

  15. 15 Torontonian Wednesday, July 21, 2010 at 2:59 pm

    @Bleatmop

    I believe that the two words–enumerate and count–are
    equivalent in meaning. The Oxford Dictionary says
    “establish the number of”.

    To my mind, enumerate suggests a systematic counting
    and categorising while counting is simply arriving at
    a total with no further distinctions.

    Student rented houses are where the entire house is
    occupied by university students and usually share
    a kitchen and living quarters. It sure beats a room
    in a house filled with others who are not students.

  16. 16 Peter Wednesday, July 21, 2010 at 2:59 pm

    JJ

    I share your frustration at the eagerness with which both sides are lining up for the final battle of Good and Evil over this, but why is a policy mandating the compulsory long form census questionnaire non-partisan and a policy abolishing it partisan? I was hit with the long form a few decades ago and I was resistant in the name of freedom-loving peoples everywhere and also my inveterate crankiness. In fact, I declined to fill it out, which earned me a succesion of increasingly “purposeful” calls from the census people. As the forces of the state closed in, I took the road of high principle–I fled the country for four months and they forgot about me. I hope you aren’t trying to intimate that the fact that I didn’t go on a hunger strike or try and blow up Parliament meant I was in favour or even acquiescent.

  17. 17 JJ Wednesday, July 21, 2010 at 3:53 pm

    Peter

    why is a policy mandating the compulsory long form census questionnaire non-partisan and a policy abolishing it partisan?

    Good point. In a rational world, neither would be any more partisan than the other. I’ll take a swing at it, though…

    I suppose it’s the way the proposal has been framed from the start: that the long-form needs to be ditched because of invasion of privacy issues (traditionally more of a concern to the right), rather than just plain old efficiency. ie., Frame it as “Let’s make the Census more effective by paring it down to questions asked on an absolute Need To Know basis” instead of “The long-form is an invasion of privacy and should be ditched ASAP before government goons start showing up at private homes with citations for building code violations”.

    I hope you aren’t trying to intimate that the fact that I didn’t go on a hunger strike or try and blow up Parliament meant I was in favour or even acquiescent.

    😆 😆

    Full disclosure: the first time I got a census, I dutifully filled it out, but the 2nd time I didn’t (I’m growing more cantankerously anti-government with age)… and they never even mailed me, let alone call me. Which just proved to me what an insignificant little gnat I am in the eyes of the State 😯 😉

  18. 18 JJ Wednesday, July 21, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    Calgal

    Perhaps it would be useful for Statscan to explain some of the weirder questions we are asked.

    Or find some other way of getting at the information. People get offended by questions like “How many bedrooms do you have”, although I’m sure the information probably serves some purpose like assessing poverty levels or something like that. But there must be other questions they can ask that tell them the same thing.


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