Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise to speak to Bill C-36, an act to amend the Statistics Act and whose purpose is to strengthen Statistics Canada's independence.
First, I want to speak about the census. In 2010, the government's decision to replace the mandatory long-form census with the voluntary national household survey gave rise to public criticism. Concerns were raised about the quality of the national household survey data and about Statistics Canada's independence.
In reaction to this decision, a number of private members' bills were introduced in the House that would require the collection of a mandatory long-form census questionnaire of equal length and scope as the 1971 census. We gave this option serious consideration, but rather than focus on protecting only the census, we chose to amend the Statistics Act to give Statistics Canada greater independence on the full range of statistical activity. We have done this by assigning to the chief statistician authority over decisions on statistical methods and operations.
The bill also adds transparency provisions to ensure greater accountability for decisions. This approach is aligned with the United Nations fundamental principles of official statistics and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's recommendation on good practices. Some may still ask, why not entrench the content of the census in legislation to fully prevent future governments from replacing the mandatory long-form census with a voluntary survey as was the case with the 2011 program? The simple answer is that no legal provision can prevent a government from changing census content.
Governments have the power to make and change laws, but more importantly, we must remember that official statistics are a public good and Statistics Canada is a publicly funded institution. It is ultimately the government's responsibility to determine the scope of the statistical system, specifically, the country's data priorities, that is to say, what is collected. This responsibility ensures that the statistical information collected is sensitive to the burdens placed on citizens as respondents, that it is sensitive to the costs they bear as taxpayers, and that the information that is produced is responsive to their needs as data users.
It must also be responsive to the government's need to make evidence-based decisions about the programs and services that affect the daily lives of Canadians such as affordable housing, public transportation, and skills training for employment. Rather than entrench the content of the long-form census questionnaire in the Statistics Act, Bill C-36 addresses the fundamental issues of Statistics Canada's independence. Let me explain why.
First, the previous government's decision about the 2011 census was not about the questions to be asked, it was about removing the mandatory requirement to respond. The voluntary national household survey, as it was called, asked the same questions as would have been asked in the planned mandatory long-form questionnaire that it replaced.
Consistent with our government's commitment to evidence-based decision-making, one of our first acts as a government was to reinstate the mandatory long-form census in time for the 2016 census of population to ensure that the census produces high quality data. We committed to strengthen Statistics Canada's independence to ensure decisions about statistical methods and operations are based on professional principles. Bill C-36 meets this commitment.
Second, entrenching census contents in law could reduce the government's flexibility to ensure that the data collected continuously meets the needs of an ever-evolving Canadian society and economy. We just have to look at the history of the content of census. It has changed numerous times to reflect emerging issues, evolving data needs, and the development of alternative ways of collecting the information.
The first national census of Canada was taken in 1871 and contained 211 questions, including age, sex, religion, education, race, occupation, and ancestral origins. Subject matters and questions have been added and dropped ever since.
In 1931, questions on unemployment were added. In 1941, questions on fertility and housing were introduced. In 1986, questions were introduced on activity limitations. In 1991, questions about common-law relationships were introduced, and questions on same-sex couples were added in 2006. In 1996, questions on unpaid work were introduced. These were removed in 2011.
These examples signal the need for flexibility and prioritization in determining the content of a census. Entrenching census content in legislation would limit this flexibility. Amending the act every time the census needs to change would be highly impractical. Our current approach to determining census content works. It is based on extensive user consultations and the testing of potential questions to reflect the changing needs of society and to ensure the census is the appropriate vehicle to respond to them. Then Statistics Canada makes a recommendation to the government on the content that should be included in the upcoming census. General questions are then prescribed by order by the Governor in Council and published in the Canada Gazette for transparency purposes.
Defining the long-form census content in law could potentially reduce the incentives to find alternative means to gathering census information at a lower cost and respondent burden. Statistical agencies must also think about the burden they impose on citizens and businesses to provide information, and they must do so within the fiscal resources allocated by the government.
The data world is evolving rapidly. We read and hear the words “big data”, “open data”, and “administrative data” every day. Increasingly, statistical offices around the world are integrating these alternative and complementary sources of information into their statistical programs. They offer the potential to collect and publish high quality statistical information more frequently, at lower cost, and at lower response burden.
For example, for the 2016 census, Statistics Canada obtained detailed income information for all census respondents from administrative records provided by the Canada Revenue Agency. This approach will ensure that higher quality income data will be produced at a lower cost and with reduced burden on Canadians.
Entrenching the scope and content of the census in the Statistics Act may not serve Canadians well moving forward. It would tie us to one way of doing business that may not be the way of the future. The act should remain flexible to the evolving data needs of Canadians and their governments. It should retain the flexibility to encourage innovation to take advantage of the evolving means of collecting statistical information.
Some have suggested that the census content should be the same as it was over 40 years ago and that the sample size for the long form should be entrenched in law. The rapidly evolving world of data suggests that we should retain the flexibility to build the foundation of a statistical system of the future, rather than restricting ourselves to continue to do what has been done in the past. We think our approach to Bill C-36 strikes the right balance and will stand the test of time.
In the time that remains, let me talk about the basic structure of Bill C-36 in terms of the independence of the chief statistical officer.
What we hope to do first of all is subject the appointment of the chief statistician to the Governor in Council process, which is open and transparent, in order to ensure that the best candidate for the office of chief statistician is found and selected according to that process.
Second, the underlying philosophy of the act is that questions of methodology in terms of statistical gathering, finding the best means, or using the best statistical techniques to gather information will be left to Statistics Canada, to the chief statistician and his or her team as it is described in the act.
Because we do have a Westminster parliamentary system in which ministerial accountability is one of the foundational or bedrock principles of the act, any political decisions that need to be made for political reasons, perhaps under exceptional circumstances where a governing party feels it needs a certain kind of information, will have to be made transparently in front of this House.
We are creating a great deal of independence and giving it to the office of chief statistician precisely so that person can go on and gather data in the best possible method, as he or she sees fit for professional reasons.
Yet, we are still working in harmony with a Westminster political system, one that has worked well so far, indeed, one that, up until 2011, allowed for Statistics Canada to have a very good reputation internationally among other statistical agencies around the world.
That is the basic underlying philosophy of the act. I would be happy to answers questions if there were any.