Mr. Speaker, I am rising to speak to Bill C-626, an act to amend the Statistics Act, regarding the chief statistician and mandatory long-form census. As I said in my question to the member, New Democrats will be supporting the bill and look forward to discussion at committee, if the Conservatives will agree to support the bill.
Over the years where this conversation has been happening in the House, the New Democrats have been consistent that we support the maintenance of the mandatory long-form census. We think it is an important document in terms of evaluating government programs and services and providing information for all levels of government when they are developing programs to address social policy issues. We believe that this form does need to be restored in its 1971 format.
I heard the member opposite talk about how effective this national household survey was. Let me read into the record some of the problems with it.
Mandatory surveys are typically used when taking a census due to high response rates. The mandatory census response rate was approximately 94%, whereas the voluntary national household survey response rate was 68%. Rural communities were especially under-represented, causing Statistics Canada to withhold data on 1,128 communities. In Saskatchewan, over 40% of communities have data of such low quality that it will not be published. This figure is over 25% in the Yukon, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Manitoba and Alberta. Voluntary surveys typically also have lower response rates for visible minorities, including aboriginal people and women.
Although many of us do get called at home for polls and surveys, and so on, I would argue that some people will respond to voluntary surveys and some will not. Therefore, the voluntary survey approach that the government has taken has failed to provide the kind of year-over-year comparable data that is very useful in terms of developing policy.
When this discussion was happening about cancelling the long-form census, there were outcries from across the country from all kinds of different organizations, academics and governments. I want to read something from 2010, prior to this decision taking effect. An op-ed by the C.D. Howe Institute was called “Cancelling the 2011 Census Long Form: Libertarians Take Out the Wrong Target”.
It is an interesting article because the focus is the fact that this kind of information gathered year over year allows citizens to hold their governments to account, and it gave a couple of very concrete examples of this. The C.D. Howe Institute said:
...the case for the long form is still strong. Not just because the voluntary survey will provide a less reliable picture of how Canadians live and work but because Statistics Canada's information—much of it based on the long-form census—is an essential tool for Canadians seeking to ensure that the state's use of its vast powers is effective and benign.
Take education. Most Canadian students receive instruction in public schools, and virtually all follow a curriculum, write tests and accept certification mandated by governments. Census information is invaluable for judging how well these systems work. C.D. Howe Institute research on aboriginal education, and on how students at particular schools do compared to what neighbourhood characteristics would predict—key tools for parents and taxpayers to demand better performance—would be impossible.
Or immigration. Canada's economic and social success is intimately linked to the economic and social success of new arrivals. Alarmingly, the average experience of immigrants in the Canadian labour market is deteriorating. Long-form data brought this problem to light; other long-form information on education, language and country of origin can help us address it.
The state plays a huge role in Canadian health care: Good information on personal and neighbourhood characteristics can help us know if we are healthier or sicker as a result. It redistributes income on a colossal scale: The long-form census can reveal much about the successes and failures of these programs. In all these areas, good information helps Canadians hold their governments to account.
Many critics of the decision to drop the census long form are talking past the people they need to persuade. Mandatory collection of such data is intrusive. The information it yields is imperfect. The question is whether we should put up with the costs and defects for the sake of the benefits—among the most vital of which is empowering Canadians with knowledge about how well, or poorly, they are governed.
For those who want government to do less but do it better, good information is indispensable. If the census long form is gone for good, libertarians will have won the wrong fight.
I thought that was a very interesting, telling article, because what we have seen from the current government is a continuing erosion of the ability of not only parliamentarians but other organizations to gain access to information. Even the Parliamentary Budget Officer has been forced into courts at times in order to get information to determine whether the government's figures are accurate.
It seems there are many who are saying that despite the potential for intrusion into Canadians' lives, that type of information is essential in determining how effectively government is operating. Therefore, a government that talks about openness, transparency, and accountability surely would want to make sure that the information is there to allow Canadians to determine that it is in fact open, transparent, and accountable.
With regard to the long form census and its impact on aboriginal communities, The Globe and Mail published an article in 2013. The article is headed “The lost long-form census means shakier insight into aboriginal issues”. This is what it says:
Canada’s public policy concerning aboriginal peoples continues to be perplexed, and the country needs more rather than less significant and reliable information about their lives and circumstances; many communities are afflicted by social problems. Consequently, the loss of the mandatory long-form census is acutely felt in Statistics Canada’s National Household Survey on First Nations, Métis and Inuit, which was released on Wednesday.
Several passages in the NHS allude to the difficulties of assembling solid statistics about aboriginals. The understandable ambivalence of some members of aboriginal communities about Canadian institutions can lead to a reluctance to answer census questions; a legal requirement was a real help. As Statistics Canada rightly says, “the characteristics of those who choose to participate” may – indeed probably do – differ from those who refuse, which undermines the information value of the survey as a whole.
I have an article from Dr. Janet Smylie, who talks about the importance of the long form census. I will not be able to read all of this document because I know I will be running out of time, but in it she indicates that the “social data systems in Canada are extremely deficient” with regard to aboriginal peoples:
We all know that First Nations, Indian, Metis, and Inuit health and social data systems in Canada are extremely deficient. We also all know that capacity (especially Aboriginal HR capacities) and infrastructure issues are a real challenge. We also all likely agree that historically and currently there have been/continue to be challenges in the way that Statistics Canada has interfaced with Aboriginal communities.
This said, the long form census is one of the key tools that we do have to understand the size of our populations and assess the conditions in which our peoples live, including the level of social disparity.... Without it our current data systems, weak as they are, will be severely disabled. While there are many problems with the national surveys run by Statistics Canada, including the APS and ACS, all of these surveys required the long form census to develop their population based sampling frame. For non-Status Indian, First Nations/Status Indians living off-reserve, Metis and Inuit communities the impacts of no long form census will be devastating, as this is the primary source of social and demographic information for our communities--and in most situations the only source, since we are otherwise hidden in the large majority of data sets. For example, the recent studies that demonstrated life expectancy disparities (including for the Inuit disparities of infant mortality in Inuit inhabited areas of up to four times those for non-Inuit inhabited areas) for First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples would not have been possible without the long form census.
I know that in the past much of that long form census data has been used to shape policies with regard to health care, with regard to housing, with regard to education. With the loss of that data comes a major concern that the absence of good information will allow decision-makers to make up policy based on ideology rather than information.
One of the things I am hoping the member who proposed the bill will be open to at committee, if it gets to committee, is to look at the fact that gathering information on a year-over-year basis that would allow for comparability is not specifically included in the bill.
Any of us in this House who have tried to deal with estimates and with the changing formats in which they are presented know how critical it is to be able to look at historical data. We can look to see if there have been trends or changes and we can see if programs and services are having any kind of impact through some of the legislation and programs that have been developed.
I am hopeful that perhaps the Conservatives will see the light of day and allow this bill to go before committee so that we can hear testimony from witnesses, possibly amend the bill, and reinstate the long form census in Canada.