Political firestorm rages over Canadian census

VANCOUVER (Reuters) - The political firestorm surrounding the Canadian government’s plan to change next year’s census grew more intense on Thursday, fanned by the abrupt resignation of the country’s chief statistician in protest.

The seemingly unlikely national debate over how statistics are collected, has pitted the minority Conservative government against groups ranging from the businesses community, to social services organizations and local governments.

Even the Bank of Canada was drawn into the debate on Thursday, with Governor Mark Carney saying the central bank will monitor what impact the census changes might have on data that it uses from Statistics Canada.

Opposition lawmakers asked Statistics Canada’s former chief statistician, Munir Sheikh, to testify next week before a committee that will examine the government’s plan to make answering the so-called long form census voluntary.

Sheikh abruptly quit on Wednesday over the government’s decision to stop making the long form questionnaire mandatory. In the past it has been sent to about 20 percent of the population, seeking detailed demographic information about families and households.

Most citizens are required to fill out a mandatory, shorter census form that seeks basic, less detailed information.

Industry Minister Tony Clement, whose department oversees Statistics Canada and the census, has said the long form was made voluntary because people had expressed privacy concerns.

Sheikh’s resignation came as a surprise -- with Statscan posting his letter on its website -- after the government said agency staff were satisfied with the changes.

“Tony Clement does not have a fig leaf of credibility to hide behind,” New Democratic Party legislator Charlie Angus said a news conference in Ottawa.

The main opposition Liberal Party accused the Conservatives of “dumbing down” Statistics Canada, where staff have complained privately to the media that they have been under pressure to cut back their analysis work.


Clement stood by the decision on Thursday, saying the detailed information can still be obtained voluntarily by sending the long form questionnaire to more people. The government spent months working on the change, he said.

“I’m not saying it is all Canadians. But there are Canadians who feel that the questions on a mandatory long form are very private questions, very intrusive questions. So we are listening to them,” he told CBC television.

Critics say the change will deprive government departments at all levels, as well as private sector and non-profit organizations, of critical data needed for planning and funding. They also accuse the Conservatives of undermining Statscan’s independence and credibility.

An Ekos poll released on Thursday saw the Conservative with a 32.4 percent popular support to 25.5 percent for the second place Liberals. The Conservatives hold only a minority of the 308 seats in the House of Commons and must rely on the support of at least one other party to stay in power.

There was some evidence the census flap had begun to have an impact on university-educated voters, the pollster said.

The political row is the latest in a series of management problems for the Conservatives, who have stayed in power not because voters love then, but because the government has been viewed as being competent, said Alan Tupper, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia.

It is also an issue that can attract voter interest because collecting census information is a core function of government that not all countries can do, said Tupper, who believes the government will have change its mind.

With reporting by Ka Yan Ng, Jennifer Kwan, Louise Egan; editing by Rob Wilson