My name is Jean-Guy Prévost. I'm a professor in the Political Science Department at the Université du Québec à Montréal. Over the past 30 years, my research has focused on the census and on the functioning of statistical offices, not only from a Canadian perspective, but also from a comparative perspective.
The tabling of Bill C-36 arose largely from the 2010-11 census crisis, which resulted from the government's decision to remove the obligation to complete the long-form census and replace it with a national household survey, participation in which would be voluntary. The decision was consistent with the Statistics Act, but it raised a huge public outcry, in large part because the decision was made very quietly, meaning that the public wasn't informed until the matter was resolved.
The issue the requirement to respond and the issue of penalties for refusing to respond are, of course, political in nature, but the government's decision also had a technical dimension. We now know, with evidence, that despite the enormous resources provided by Statistics Canada, the quality and reliability of the results of a survey of a sample of volunteers is unsatisfactory.
The government's decision to impose its point of view led to the resignation of the chief statistician at the time, and that major event is one reason why the decision was considered a breach of the agency's professional independence.
We can legitimately wonder what the independence of a statistical agency is. This concept wasn't widespread in the 1980s, but it is becoming more common today. Of the 34 OECD member countries, 29 have adopted legislation that, in connection with Statistics Canada and its chief statistician, include explicit reference to the term “independence” or one of its correlates, such as “autonomy”, “objectivity”, “impartiality” and “neutrality”. The 1985 Statistics Act is one of five acts that do not contain such a reference.
The reason we have witnessed a movement in favour of an explicit reference to the concept of independence in statistical legislation is that independence and the appearance of independence are indispensable conditions for establishing the credibility of statistical data in a world where data should play an increasingly important role.
In addition to incorporating the idea of independence or one of its correlates into the legislation, OECD countries have resorted to other means to ensure their protection. For example, some have clarified the appointment and dismissal procedures of the chief statistician. Others have set up a body to advise the chief statistician and assess the quality of the work done by the office. Several other countries have opted for codes of best practice and quality assurance programs.
Lastly, we should keep in mind that independence, understood in the sense of protection against intervention by the political authorities in the professional or technical dimensions of statistical work, is never enough. A statistical office must also have clear mandates and authority as well as means to carry out its task. The more recent resignation of chief statistician Wayne Smith illustrates the complexity of these issues.
How does the Bill C-36 address concerns about the independence of Statistics Canada? The proposed amendments contain a number of welcome clarifications, but they also contain ambiguities. I will limit myself here to a few points.
The first point concerns the appointment of the chief statistician. The irremovability of the chief statistician for the duration of the term constitutes an appreciable protection, and there is an equivalent precision in several countries. However, nothing in the act confirms what is mentioned in the notes that accompany the bill, namely that this appointment follows an “open and transparent” selection process.
The second point concerns the professional independence of the chief statistician. Subsection 4(5) as amended reads: “The Chief Statistician shall ... (a) decide, based strictly on professional statistical standards that he or she considers appropriate, the methods and procedures for carrying out statistical programs ...”
This reference in the bill to what is generally understood as “independence” is the clearest to date—even though the term is not explicitly used. The list of specific items to which these professional statistical standards apply is consistent with what we have seen in other countries.
However, subsection 4.1(1) states: "Directives on any methods, procedures and operations may only be issued to the Chief Statistician by the Governor in Council, by order, on the recommendation of the Minister.”
It seems to me that we are going right back to what we saw in summer 2010: the possibility of intervention by the political authorities in the field that should come under “professional statistical standards” without prior public debate. If we absolutely want to keep the possibility for politicians to intervene on this issue, the only way, I think, is to allow public debate and to authorize the chief statistician of Statistics Canada to make his opinion publicly known. Otherwise, in the event of disagreement, the outcome will be the chief statistician's resignation, which ultimately results in a loss of public confidence. The fact that the section of the 1985 Statistics Act dealing specifically with census matters remains unchanged in this bill curiously leaves such a possibility open.
A somewhat different problem arises with respect to subsection 4.2(1), which refers to directives on statistical programs. It is legitimate for a government to want to obtain statistical information on areas previously ignored, or for budgetary or other reasons to end certain programs. The bill provides that the chief statistician may require that such directives “be made in writing and made public before the Chief Statistician acts on it.” It is difficult to understand why the chief statistician's ability to require the publication of such directives does not extend to those that would more directly affect what should be his or her area of concern, namely the methods and procedures.
The third point relates to the existence of a quality assessment and consultation body. The existence of such a body is also a way to strengthen and guarantee the independence of Statistics Canada. The National Statistics Council, which was established in 1985, has been an almost invisible structure: this doesn't mean that its members haven't played an advisory role to the chief statistician, but the council had no public profile—no website, two lines on the Statistics Canada website, no list of members anywhere, and so on.
The notes accompanying the bill provide the council with a considerable mandate, but as there are no resources planned to meet the required profile, there is no certainty that this new council will be able to do much more than the previous one.
Furthermore, Statistics Canada's independence is also based on means that exceed the legal framework, including, the body's adoption of a code of conduct comparable to the one that European countries have.
In conclusion, in a comparative study of all OECD countries, Canada appears to be one of the few countries where the independence of the statistical office is not legally or formally protected. While Statistics Canada has long enjoyed broad independence in practice, it was based on a gentlemen's agreement that ceased to exist in 2010.
In this regard, the bill brings two notable improvements: one to the chief statistician's irremovable character during the term of office and the other to recognition of his or her authority over professional standards, methods and procedures.
However, the bill should be clearer on these two points: with regard to the first, by including a reference to the selection process for appointing the chief statistician; in the case of the second, either by deleting section 4.1, thereby recognizing the exclusive jurisdiction of the chief statistician regarding methods and procedures, or by providing, as mentioned in section 4.2, that directives on methods and procedures “should be made in writing and made public before the Chief Statistician acts on it.”
At the present time, there is still a considerable gap between the explanations published on the department's site that reflect a considerable ambition and the bill itself. Basically, in contrast to the current legislation, this contains fairly modest changes to the independence of Statistics Canada.