FOR the past several weeks I have been an interested observer of a controversy that has kept Canadians engaged. It pertains to the census in May next year.
For someone unaware of the important link between a headcount and the politics, economy and social services of a country this might appear a mundane issue for the media to expend so much newsprint and television time on. But in western democracies with modern economies a census is not something to be taken lightly. It provides the basic statistical profile of the population to ensure efficient, equitable and just governance.
The matter has led to heated arguments and a deluge of charges and denials in Canada following the government's decision to change the format of the census. The population is counted every five years — Canada is probably the only country in the world to do so at such short intervals. This is possible given the small population (34 million), a high level of education and the prevailing sense of civic responsibility among the people.
Since 1971 the census has been conducted by self-enumeration with Canadians filing by post or email (since 2006) the filled questionnaire to Statistics Canada, the department responsible for the headcount.
Every household receives a form containing eight questions that seek basic information on name, address, age, marital status, etc. Twenty per cent of the people — selected through scientific sampling methods — also receive, or did so until 2006, a long form that contained 53 additional questions seeking more comprehensive information on economic status, income, housing, education, etc. Since providing the required information was mandatory, everyone receiving the forms had to fill them. Those not cooperating could be penalised.
The controversy erupted when the government took the plea that the questions asked in the long form could violate the privacy of citizens, the confidentiality clause notwithstanding. So it has now been decided to replace the compulsory long form by a voluntary national household survey. Those who do not want to fill the questionnaire would not be compelled to do so.
Statistics Canada protested that this would distort the sampling and the data would not be accurate. In the rumpus that erupted the chief of StatCan, Munir Shaikh, a civil servant of great repute and integrity, resigned and a Francophone Canadian group (Federation of Francophone and Acadian Communities) has gone to court describing the move to cancel the mandatory long form census as unconstitutional. It claims that since the new method would fail to collect accurate data on the languages spoken in the country, it would affect the “quality of government services in French”.
The government has come under severe attack from the media, the opposition parties and many professional groups notably the Canadian Medical Association and the Statisticians Society which benefited from the wealth of information the census yielded. Mr Paul Martin, a former prime minister (Liberal Party) has accused the Conservatives of “trying to dumb down the country” and attempting to “clamp down on information and free discussions among Canadians”. The prime minister who heads a minority government has been charged with being “secretive and closed”.
The government is on the defensive. It plans to print more of the 40-page long forms since many are not expected to be returned. This will be accompanied with a massive advertising campaign to persuade people to reply to the voluntary questionnaire. All this will cost an additional $30m. In 2006 the entire census exercise had cost $45m.
With the matter so politicised, the danger is that the real issue might be lost in the welter of accusations and counter-accusations being traded by the political parties at a time when elections are not far off. The information collected by Statistics Canada is considered to be “vital for maintaining Canada's health and social programmes” and to help businesses “foster economic growth”. Toronto Star
The that has been in the forefront of the campaign against dropping the mandatory long form has dubbed the move as “as an echo of the paranoid impulses of America's far right” which views a census as a “symbol of government intrusiveness”. If proof were needed of how much information the Canadian census — rather the mandatory long form — yields one should have seen the double-page spread the paper carried of the demographic portrait of the country drawn from the census.
As seen by Environics Analytics, a Toronto-based marketing company, Canadians fall into one of the “66 neighbourhood lifestyle clusters” based on 1,800 variables derived from the census. From this one can learn of the income groups ranging from the 'Cosmopolitan Elites' who have university education and earn an average annual income of $466,032 to the 'Survivre en Ville' whose average income is $40,052 and are school leavers.
What has struck me about this debate is how it stands in stark contrast to our own approach to the census. I cannot help but think of the cavalier manner in which the census in Pakistan has been treated. After the first four censuses the exercise ceased to be a regular exercise. After 1981, the next census came after a gap of 16 years. As for the census to be held in 2008, it has become a victim of politics. The war on terror and now the flood have also served as a pretext to push the issue into the background. n
Had we attached more importance to the census, our information on the damage to life and property wrought by the floods would have been more accurate. At the moment in the absence of reliable data on the population — we are not even sure about how many people lived in different towns and villages that have come under water — we can only make a guesstimate of loss of life and destruction of property. No wonder the figures being given vary so much that probably what we shall learn in the end will be rough estimates.